Julia Zarina: Second-class scientists

By Julia Zarina, Columnist
Published September 18, 2013

On Sunday night, I nearly had a double heart attack due to basic cable programming.

The first occurred continuously over an hour as Breaking Bad hurtled across the American Southwest toward its meth-fueled rampage of a conclusion. The show has been the subject of debate about the glorification of the male anti-hero and, conversely, the prominent hatred of female characters, like Skyler White (played by Anna Gunn), who don’t conform to archetypical ideals. On television, men don’t have to be good to be celebrated as being interesting and they certainly don’t need a moral compass to be celebrated as “good”. Female characters aren’t written to the same degree of flawed complexity very often and are even less frequently praised in roles where they are.

The second happened when University alum Nina Davuluri made history when she was crowned the first Miss America of Indian-American descent. In the days that followed, she graciously brushed off racist complaints that she doesn’t look or act the part of a “typical” Miss America — whatever that’s supposed to mean.

In the entertainment industry, like other fields where there’s a well-established majority, being a minority often comes with the expectation that if you want to succeed, you conform to the long-standing cultural status quo or you destine yourself for a niche market. If you’re simultaneously successful and a minority, then your description usually comes with qualifications.

Nobody writes of a strong male TV character, a best-selling European-American author, or a famous man in computer science because those qualities are implied. To appropriate Toni Morrison, being a minority and a scientist, or a minority and a comedian, or even a minority and an American still means you “have to hyphenate” your title.

I've found this to be especially true as a woman studying engineering. Here at the University, 23 percent of students in the College of Engineering are female and only 8 percent of all Engineering students come from historically underrepresented backgrounds. These statistics reflect national trends: According to recent studies, less than 25 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are held by women, despite the fact that today women make up almost half of the workforce.

This data quantifies a frustratingly obvious duality for minorities in STEM fields. Although discriminatory policies are legally prohibited in the United States, an internalized culture of exclusion often prevails. As recently as 2005, Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, was infamously quoted on his beliefs that the underrepresentation of women in science is due to inherent biological shortcomings, not because of “discrimination or socialization.”

Attitudes like these are particularly damaging in light of actual facts.

According to studies funded by the National Science Foundation, young women express an initial interest and aptitude in STEM studies at similar rates to men, but many who start off in these fields later drop out. When interviewed, nearly 40 percent of women and minority students report feeling discouraged from pursuing careers in these fields due to the culture of those professions.

Even the way textbooks are written can impact female interest in certain fields. Word problems that deal with cars and baseball, for example, are tailored to interests socially perceived to be masculine.

As students get older, this culture intensifies. From the professor who discourages wearing skirts to the career fair because employers won’t “take you seriously,” to declining enrollment of women in computer science in part due to "stereotypes they had grown up with", many women perceive there to be a narrow range of social acceptability in STEM fields. The accepted median, or so it seems, is male-oriented.

Popular stereotypes help guide perspectives that women are second-class citizens in the sciences. Femininity in pop culture is often portrayed — inaccurately — as being inherently superficial and emotionally guided. In environments built on rational analysis, these stereotypes are especially detrimental. Being associated, however unfairly, with superficiality and analytical shortcomings automatically excludes being feminine from what is seen as serious engineering culture.

Being praised for not “acting like a girl” is a misplaced designation of value. Just as I hated being told in high school that I had “become American” after I started dressing and speaking the part of a middle-class white girl, I find it frustrating to be told I’m “one of the boys” and expected to take it as an unshaded compliment. I take it as a fact. Just like I take my status as a woman as a fact, not a condition in need of remedy.

The prevailing culture in STEM fields isn’t inherently invaluable. However, the expectation that to be relevant as women we must fill a certain role is not only marginalizing, but also defeating of a main tenant of engineering philosophy. As scientists, we seek innovation and value global perspectives and diverse opinions as essential to growth.

So, if you want to show up to your thermodynamics class in heels and a dress, rock it out. Take yourself seriously, because defining yourself as feminine shouldn’t be stigmatized. To everybody else, recognize that we look fly as hell and move on.

Equality isn’t reached by degrading the majority voices, but by elevating the minority ones. When the playing field is level, true equals compete and collaborate. When one group has to spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort just proving they are competitors, they are competing not to thrive, but to survive.

While valuable resources tailored towards minorities in STEM fields exist, we must recognize problems that persist.

Science and engineering teach us to never accept adequacy, that we as components of a complex system must be constantly evolving and that by definition, no system is perfect. As scientists, we’re driven by the pursuit of something we have yet to achieve. As members of one of the world’s most influential engineering universities, we need to continue to support programs encouraging minority involvement in STEM fields. Until women and other underrepresented minorities have an equal place, our STEM culture is inherently lacking.

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu.