Gender and Professionalism in STEM

1. FIRST,

let us address the obvious fact that at our current moment, dominant cultures across the globe still treat gender as very binary, and tied to sex assigned at birth. Women are encouraged to present as feminine from an early age. This suits some women, and it does not suit others. Obviously, nurtured towards a feminine presentation and under the pressures of social expectations, many women do ultimately fall somewhere on the feminine side of the gender presentation spectrum. And so, to exclude femininity, to always code it as superficial or stupid, is to exclude women.

2. BUT,

we can also decouple femininity and gender. Let us unlink femininity and womanhood — not all women are feminine and not all femmes are women. Everyone has traits all along the spectrum (but more than one dimension— ink splotch? Spectral rays?) of gender presentation.

Many people, regardless of gender, have some or many feminine traits, or actively pursue feminine presentation. This is not necessarily because they choose to change their gender presentation in a very calculated way, but simply that, after becoming aware that gender presentation is a construct, some people may break free of binary thinking. Men, comfortable in their gender as men, choose to carry purses marketed to women simply because they like them. Or women, also comfortable in their gender as women, discover that they enjoy very masculine leather jackets and blazers.

Notice the idea of “menswear inspired women’s clothing” is already very prevalent, but “purses for men” is only now gaining traction (even in Europe and other areas where it’s more acceptable that men carry bags, they may be more intentionally plain or functional-looking, less decorative).

This is because women have always had to live in a man’s world, and the gender nonbinary and gender diverse have also had to live in a straight, cis man’s world. So everyone, even women, chases the most acceptable, most powerful presentation —the straight male presentation. Certainly, at home and on weekends people might change the way they present. But in settings defined as “professional”, only the creative industries are accepting of bright colors or flashy makeup.

Trans women are in a particularly tough spot with this cultural dynamic. Trans women can feel greater pressure to present as feminine in order to “pass”, yet must also try not to be “too girly” for the office. Ideally, they must pass as a cis women who is good at being professionally masculine — a standard that feels impossibly unfair. Femme men have zero incentive to be themselves in the workplace.

3. GENDER IS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT,

as is gender presentation. While allowing constructs to limit us and enforce marginalization is bad, constructs in and of themselves are not necessarily bad. Culture in general is also a social construct, and becoming more progressive when thinking about different cultures does not mean eradicating them. Rather, we envision a world where everyone can practice their cultures safely and mindfully of others, inclusive, respectful, with peace. Cultures change over time, just as gender presentation does (the shift that made it acceptable for women to wear pants, for example). And of course, one could argue that gender presentation is itself a culture, or that it is a component of all cultures.

Therefore, making room for what we currently call femininity is always going to be important, even as the definition of what’s feminine changes or becomes less binary. The individual components of the current definition of femininity are simple behavioral traits, likes and dislikes, human preferences. I can’t imagine that finding appeal in certain colors, preference for some kinds of clothing, tendencies toward nurturing and other personality traits will simply be eradicated in 100% of the human population one day. Currently, we reject and exclude a broad swath of traits from a profession that are tied to a specific gender and gender presentation, but this prevents everyone from comfortably being their true selves; it limits everyone’s freedom of gender expression.

OK, now I’ve brought us very broad and far and away. A different person could use these same examples to talk about why corporate America at large should embrace femininity. But,

4. I WANT TO TALK ABOUT STEM FIELDS

because I am an engineer, and because STEM is aggressively coded as masculine. In particular, it often has a very white, straight, cis-male connotation. I mean, just picture the person that pops up into your head when I say things like “doctor, scientist, civil engineer, mechanical engineer, coder, hacker, genius.”

What was the gender & presentation of the person you briefly imagined?

This has real world consequences that are quite literally dangerous, most especially dangerous for women and the gender diverse. I use this example all the time, but there are still no driver’s-side crash test dummies for cars that are based on the 50th percentile female build — directly causing women to have a higher chance of death if they were to get into a car accident.

5. MORE REPRESENTATION IS ONLY PART OF THE BATTLE

though admittedly a large part, as gender representation can change the culture of an industry. But right now, I feel daily the pressure to be masculine, not only from men in STEM but also from senior women, from whom I take my cues on how to be a woman in STEM. Women in STEM, both because they choose STEM which is coded as masculine and because they are then influenced by the masculine culture of STEM, tend to present less feminine than average for their gender. STEM women are willing to pursue (or perhaps endure) a masculine coded profession with a masculine culture. Sometimes they genuinely prefer a less feminine presentation, or genuinely have some masculine traits and interests, but also, much has been informed by the “smart girls aren’t girly girls” logic that permeates our culture.

This pressure to be masculine effectively means that I aim always to be like a man, to dress like one and think like one and appeal to my superiors like one. I don’t want to be a good female engineer, I simply want to be a good engineer, and the subtext of that is male. If I am always expending an effort to fit this mold made for a man, I can’t focus on the perspectives of women. Even though I am a woman, I can’t as effectively build products to be inclusive of women while I am trying as hard as I can to be a male engineer. This is true of everything from cars to medical devices.

I am naturally — naturally in that a combination of my upbringing, society, and my intrinsic traits have made me myself — feminine. I am very nurturing (I’m always the “mom friend”), gentle, emotionally sensitive. To be a “masculine engineer” I must contort myself to someone smart but uncaring, laser focused on product not people, aggressive, emotionally absent.

And I do have some of that in me; I am driven and ambitious and can get sucked into a single technical issue for hours. Just like all human beings, I contain many dualities, spectrums, and permutations. Because of course, real-life male engineers are not purely emotionally absent, laser-focused, aggressive people either. It’s a phantom standard that does not take into account the real people behind the work.

6. WHO INVENTED THE WHEEL?

The truth is, we do not know, nor who created/discovered fire. Believe with me, for just one second, that the inventors of these early human achievements were female. Just sit in the belief for a moment, even if afterward you let it go entirely.

Of course, we cannot know whether our modern interpretation of gender even applied. These ancient human behaviors that eventually led to engineering were creating tools and modifying the environment. These do not, in hindsight, have anything particularly gendered about them. If anything, cooking and textile production now feel like feminine domains, and food and clothing (implying stoves, looms, sewing) are some of our most basic, important needs. It is bizarre to me that artisanal crafting is now generally coded as feminine, when it is in many ways the foundation of technology, the special creation of tools.

STEM may be technical, meaning specific and well constrained, but binaries belong only in code.

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MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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Selam G.

Selam G.

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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