Once Again Down the Women in Science Road

I know, I know!  I’ve written a lot about this recently, but the particular challenges that women in STEM fields face is something near to my heart.  With the recent death of Sally Ride, the achievements of women in science have been in the news, too.  But that’s not really what this post is about.  This post is about gymnastics, kind of.

from Piled Higher and Deeper, by Jorge Cham

Specifically, this post is about Gabby Douglas’ hair.  Except that it’s not.  There was a recent piece on NPR about the brouhaha over Douglas’ hair in which there was one sentiment that struck me:  The idea that she is representing all black women by her achievement.

Sorry, no.  Gabby Douglas is representing herself and the USA (only because she’s choosing to compete as part of the US Olympic team).  She doesn’t represent women, or black women, or 16-year-olds, or even 16-year-old women from Virginia.  She is representing herself.  Her achievement is HER achievement.  Yes, it’s wonderful to see some diversity in a sport with a lot of homogeneity in the US, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that her achievement is her own, and the only person she might make look bad if her ponytail is less than perfect is herself.  So, really, there’s no reason to even both with her hair unless you’re one of the judges and that sort of thing is important in scoring.

And this is a lesson that a lot of people could learn when in a situation where they are in the minority.  You are just yourself.  For women in technical fields, that specifically means that your ideas and experiences are your own and not necessarily related to how any other woman in the field might feel, just because they share the same gender identification as you.  One problem that female faculty face is that they end up on a lot more advisory boards and committees because their departments want to make sure there is “minority representation” for everything.  The result is often a committee that is a lot more diverse than the department itself.  And, no one female faculty member really represents women, in general.  Just like no one old, white, male faculty member represents all the other old, white, male faculty members.

So, I think it’s time to lay off of women, and other minorities in STEM fields, about this idea that they are representing their entire demographic by their single presence.  And it’s time for women to ease up on themselves, and realize that just because another person is female does not mean that person understands you any better.  So try to attract female STEM professionals to your institution or laboratory or company because it’s unfair that for decades women were treated like they were inherently less capable than men in science and math, but don’t do it because you think that having female representation will make your institution/lab/company more attractive because of diversity.

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