Misogyny in academia is a special breed, even in “progressive” universities. What makes misogyny in academia unique is the unnecessary competition between different fields, particularly STEM and liberal arts: which is more necessary, which is more lucrative, which is more ethical and all sorts of other superlatives. As a woman with a liberal arts major, I not only often feel this competition, but also experience and witness internalized misogyny between women in STEM and women in liberal arts. The debate between STEM vs. liberal arts inaccurately reflects the true value of academics, and worsens misogyny by keeping us occupied with in-fighting instead of fighting patriarchal structures.
The debate is not only irrelevant, but fundamentally flawed. Although containing different courses, degrees and careers, the two are functionally connected; one cannot exist without the other. How else would we have well-written lab reports reflecting scientific research, technologically-advanced museums demonstrating history, digital art and online books? While independently important, the interdisciplinary nature of STEM and liberal arts keeps the world advancing, tangibly and intangibly, factually and emotionally.
We aren’t only competing over our academic beliefs, but the existence of misogyny itself towards the other party. Misogyny in academia is not one-size-fits-all, but is uniquely based on our specific interests. When women have already been exposed to internalized misogyny our entire lives (who’s prettier, smarter, wealthier, etc.), academics add yet another layer. We’re not only driven further apart, but it becomes more difficult to communicate and respect one another in our experiences.
For STEM majors working in a “man’s world,” women are often discriminated against and not given the same voice or opportunities. Despite increasing numbers of women as researchers, authors and reviewers, they are still underrepresented in research projects, publications and grant rewards. Marginalized women, such as women of color and transgender women, have even more difficulties with gaining recognition. The mere presence of women in STEM fields has caused backlash with scientists trying to justify the gap with different theories, including that women are biologically less fit for STEM or biologically less interested than men — both of which have been proven false.
On the other hand, misconceptions about the importance of liberal arts programs and their economic value have led some universities to cut funding for the programs altogether. I believe a key part of this trend is that liberal arts is often seen as “women’s work.” Throughout history, when once male-dominated fields, such as teaching and social work, became women-dominated, those fields are then seen as less important. As a result, liberal arts coursework is seen as less difficult and necessary in the grand scheme. Women are encouraged to change career paths or even drop out. Just recently, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R–N.C., encouraged students to drop out of college unless they “become a doctor or lawyer or engineer.”
In STEM or liberal arts, when the work and achievements of women are undervalued on a personal and industry level, there is no point debating which form of misogyny is worse. When we fail to recognize different experiences with misogyny and its harm, we allow it to continue. Though passive, we all take responsibility when other women suffer.
Seeing women in STEM make new strides and push for equality, I have admittedly felt embarrassed over my major and even resentful. I fear that I’m not doing enough for feminism by working in a women-dominated field. For this, I’ve also felt ignored in my experiences with misogyny, because it’s not seen as being “as bad” as what other women in college face. Conversely, I’ve been praised for choosing a creative field and not one that’s “boring” or “typical” as some have inaccurately described STEM.
This is why I’m extending not an olive branch but rather a metaphorical treaty. We cannot accept praise for our achievements at the expense of other women and their goals. My work in liberal arts is both influential and lucrative, and STEM is becoming more common because of our developing world. When so many differences and ignorances distract us from fighting for equality, we shouldn’t let this false narrative deter us even further from our goals. Is “girls support girls” an oversimplified motto? Yes, but I don’t think “STEM girls support liberal arts girls and vice versa” has to be so complicated. Changing our mentality on academic purpose is one step towards eliminating academic misogyny.
Elizabeth Wolfe is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.