Why women in STEM matter

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Despite intention, words affect people in numerous ways. Linguistic mindfulness is as applicable to the sciences as it is to the humanities. While many critique the scientific community’s diligence as political correctness, the ultimate goal of using precise diction is to reflect our meaning accurately to the entirety of an audience.

The scientific community prides itself on the accuracy and objectivity of research, yet oftentimes, this scientific lens ignores linguistic pitfalls of assumed impartiality. Naomi Oreskes states in “Why Trust Science?” that societal biases are often “so embedded as to go unrecognized as assumptions.” In other words, communities, such as science research, that lack a diversity of gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic background frequently fall into unquestioned truths that have the capacity to construct unintentionally biased research. This bias may not always be easily detectable, such as the double-entendre in literature, but it is present, and it severely affects marginalized groups.

According to UNESCO, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. This lack of diversity institutes hegemony within science, ultimately hurting the women and minority groups not present in these spheres of power and influence.

The cost of gender diversity is notable, and its effects are apparent across the medical field. For example, during the introduction of the hormonal birth control pill in the late ’60s, doctors and researchers ignored tens of thousands of complaints by women that it caused severe depressive episodes, as well as a lack of energy and motivation.

Cancer treatment, such as immunotherapy, has also been identified to be significantly less effective for women than men. Dr. Kirtly Jones acknowledges there are likely dozens of other treatments that are less effective in other fields, primarily because “in the history of research into health outcomes in medicine, men’s biology was the default mode.”

Emily Martin, an anthropologist and professor at New York University, has researched how gender stereotypes perpetuate biased research and has concluded that the lack of gender diversity causes biased theories to retain authority in the scientific community, as well as in society. Any person who has sat through a sex education class is familiar with the tale of sperm swimming to penetrate the egg to eventually create a fetus. Martin points out that this depiction of penetration and agency of the sperm is, in fact, a product of assumptions from cultural gender roles embedded in research rather than scientific fact.

Not only has research shown that the tails on the sperm do not propel it forward, but this portrayal of a “dormant bride awaiting her mate’s magical kiss” is also a misnomer. Recent studies suggest “that sperm and egg are mutually active partners.” Moreover, the promise of new data and research is also not as robust as one may expect — numbers are only numbers until given meaning, and bias in research is capable of warping our understanding of the data available to perpetuate current beliefs and easy truths.

Martin identifies this in her research, stating: “New data did not lead scientists to eliminate gender stereotypes in their descriptions of egg and sperm. Instead, scientists began to describe egg and sperm in different, but no less damaging, terms.” This resilience of bias in science is exactly why women in science matter and why diversity in general matters. Moreover, it shows the value of precise language and mindfulness that must be instituted in scientific research.

It is important to remember this discriminatory treatment stems from institutions of bias against women that are embedded in our culture, which compromises our health and wellness, the treatment we receive from our doctors, the medication available and so much more.

Despite women’s bodies being built to withstand exceptional amounts of pain, doctors have often not taken my pain seriously. When I couldn’t go to school because of my severe period symptoms, I was dissuaded from the pill because it sometimes causes weight gain, implying I cared more about my looks than my education.

Another time, I visited a doctor who asked me if there was a chance I was pregnant. I said no, that I wasn’t sexually active and that I had already been tested for this in a blood panel a few months ago. Despite my protests, they tested for pregnancy and billed it to my parents, only for the test to come back negative.

This lack of physician-patient trust and respect further exemplifies the biases that mediate women’s experiences. These experiences may be more severe than a common doctor visit, but there is an immeasurable amount of similar instances pervading medicine and critically affecting our experiences and ultimately our health.

The examples used highlight significant issues that plague homogeneous scientific communities. If we want STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — to support the entirety of our diverse society, we must first employ a decent representation of that diversity in these fields.

The push to enhance diversity in professional spaces, such as STEM, is not merely a moral sentiment of our nation’s values of equality; a diversity of ideas and perspectives is what steers us toward progress, toward life-changing solutions that help everybody. The best, most effective way to see improvements in STEM is to empower women and minority groups to obtain higher education, to penetrate these heavily male-dominated professions and get their brilliant minds heard. Women in STEM matter because women matter; diversity in STEM matters because all people matter.

Jackie O’Hara is a sophomore intending to double major in molecular and cell biology and public health at UC Berkeley with a passion for promoting diversity and gender equity in STEM.