“We Need Smart People in STEM”

That’s something I used to believe. That’s something I felt passionately about. As a teenager I resented it when people told me that more women should enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. To me, that statement seemed to carry an implication of: “women aren’t smart enough to enter STEM fields on the basis of their own merit”. After all, why should one’s gender, or any other innate trait, matter in relation to their field of study? Why bring it up at all?

Science is the universal language, a field based on logic and reason: one in which there is no room for illogical, petty discrimination. Isn’t that why physics concepts are engraved on the Pioneer plaque, the disc sent into space in 1972 with the intent of conveying our location to any extraterrestrial intelligence? If Mr Spock the Vulcan can be a scientist on his own merit, why on Earth wouldn’t a woman be able to make it? If octopuses can garner praise for solving puzzles, why couldn’t I? Eighteen-year-old me was fiercely determined to prove to myself – and the world – that my perceived gender had no impact on my ability to be a fantastic computer scientist. I didn’t need more female classmates or professors, because I only wanted to learn from smart people, people whose genders mattered less than their intelligence.

Then I turned nineteen, and was told to stop raising my hand so much in class.

Then I turned twenty-one, and a classmate expressed shock when I correctly answered a mathematics question before he did.

Then I turned twenty-two, and was informed that I come across as too self-confident and blunt.

Then I remembered how, at fifteen, I struggled with my coursework in a computer science class which was upward of 90% male. How my conversations with those classmates too often focused on their image of me as “a girl”, rather than as a fellow scientist.

How, at thirteen, I went from loving mathematics to hating it because I was convinced I couldn’t do it as well as the boys in my class.

Did my supposed identity of “girl”, of “woman”, truly have no impact? Can somebody who is not a cisgender man truly gain respect in a field dominated by cisgender men? I compared my C+ in twelfth grade AP Computer Science (taught by a male teacher) with my A+ in my college freshman computer science course (taught by a woman professor), and wondered: is “smartness” even real?

The truth is that it isn’t. The truth is that merit is a myth for anybody who is not a cisgender, “upper” class, non-Black man in technology. How can we be judged purely on our skill sets and interests, when the system around us was designed to uplift one set of people – a group to whom we do not and cannot ever belong? If the tech industry is truly blind to gender, why were only 16% of software engineers women according to a 2014 poll? Why do transgender people comprise less than 1% of the tech industry, when about 3% of people in the United States have gender identities which fall under the transgender umbrella? Why do Black engineers make up less than 3% of the technological workforce in the United States’ eight largest tech companies? Surely non-Black cisgender men are not possessed of more innate scientific talent than any other gender or race!

They do, however, possess far more privilege. In a nation built on anti-Blackness – in a nation wherein every single president has been a cisgender man – is it any wonder that bigotry is built into the workplace, too?

I’m in my twenties now. I’ve been a software engineer for multiple years. In my free time, I take machine learning and mathematics courses. And I look back on my prior attitude with shame and resentment: shame that I had bought into such a harmful view – one which I too had been hurt by – and resentment at a society which created the myth of genderless tech.

You know what? We do need more women in STEM. We need more diversity in STEM, because only diversity can uproot the nonchalant, widespread discrimination born from tech’s homogeneity at every echelon. It isn’t a “special favour” to promote STEM programs targeted toward underrepresented minorities in those fields. It isn’t condescending to bring up gender in this conversation.

It’s necessary.

––Aditi Ramaswamy

Software engineer; emerging author; almost certainly not a changeling. I write about the uncomfortable parts of Indian & American history & culture.