Culture & Society

Damned If You Read, Damned If You Code

STEM or humanities, women can’t win

By Zoe Ferguson

In America, there is a rampant version of sexism directed towards women who, in one way or another, try to break the boundary between their prescribed academic interests and the evolving—and profitable—world of digital technology. Though male leaders like President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden encourage women to pursue scientific fields through the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the White House Council on Women and Girls, the environment is both overtly and covertly hostile.

Take, for example, the Gamergate fiasco, in which thousands of men online converged to attack and threaten a few feminist gamers and women in tech, like Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian. The problem, as one student from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas wrote in the college’s online publication The Rebel Yell, is the perception that “men are from STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics], women are from humanities.”

According to Ben Schmidt, associate professor of history at Northeastern, almost half of bachelor degrees granted to women in liberal arts fields were in the humanities in 1965. That number has decreased to about 25 percent. But the women who have left the humanities are not entering tech: instead, more and more are studying social sciences like psychology, economics, and political science. And a huge number of women are earning pre-professional degrees—more than half of these degrees are conferred to women.

Why are the humanities dwindling in popularity? New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks writes that there is a simple economic explanation: “Accounting majors get jobs. Lit majors don’t.” But there is more to it than that, he says: the humanities are less popular because they just seem irrelevant.

It’s true that students are pursuing “practical” majors to be employed after the Great Recession. But this pattern is older than the 2008 economic crisis, so we have to ask: to what extent is the perceived irrelevance of the humanities predicated on the field’s association with women?

As the American Association of University Women (AAUW) wrote in a 2013 report, “Most people associate science and math fields with ‘male,’ and humanities and arts fields with ‘female.’” This wasn’t always the case: back in the Renaissance, a man who was an expert in all fields, especially the humanities, prevailed. When novels first came on the scene with Daniel Defoe’s 1719 work Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, they were hailed as original works of genius.

But by the time Mary Ann Evans—who went by the male pen name George Eliot—wrote The Mill on the Floss in 1860, novels were considered an inferior literary form because women, who did not have day jobs, liked to read them and had even begun to write them. “Silly novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them,” Evans wrote in a mocking 1856 essay entitled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.”

Since then, the trend has stayed the same. Even as men dominate the literary world, “silly novels by lady novelists” have become “chick lit.” What makes the pursuit of literary knowledge a feminine one, even today, while computer science has become the hot field for men? What accounts for the lack of a female presence in computer science, when every other scientific field has seen an increase in women enrolled?

“What worries me is how serious the enforcement of the line  is—this thick black American line between men and women that bleeds over into academia.”

The AAUW’s research shows that while the percentage of bachelor’s degrees earned by women in the life sciences and even physics and engineering have risen dramatically in the last 50 years, the percentage of women in computer science is barely greater than it was in 1965 and has dropped significantly in the last 30 years. Last spring, here at Cornell, the college of engineering had 107 women computer science majors, compared to 311 men. That means almost 75 percent of Cornell’s CS majors are still men. So, what gives?

The AAUW attributes the disparity to implicit bias—bias that we might not even recognize in ourselves. Both women and men can have implicit bias towards women, which silently reinforces ideas that women can’t or shouldn’t do certain things. In the context of computer science, the impact of implicit bias is strong: while women may have an interest in the field, they may also have an internalized notion that CS just isn’t something women do.

And not only do people hold stereotypes about what’s masculine and feminine, but they don’t allow for crossover either. As a woman, there is no way to “win”: if you study English, you are assumed to be doing so because it’s a typical feminine major. If you want to cross over and study computer science, you will likely be perceived as incompetent and unlikable.

What worries me is how serious the enforcement of the line is—this thick black American line between men and women that bleeds over into academia. You can either be a woman in humanities or a woman in STEM, or you can be a man in STEM or a man in humanities, if you’re an especially rare breed. There is absolutely no room to blur that line by being interested in both computer science and humanities.

This is why women in STEM—encouraged by numerous government initiatives, programs, scholarship funds, and schools from pre-K to graduate school—seem like such a big deal. They represent a switch, a crossing-over from one side to the other. But what they do not represent is an actual tearing down of boundaries or a blurring of the line.

The celebration of “Women In STEM,” while worthy and important, must be seen as something that is progressive but not the final step. When we have people of all genders integrated into various fields of study based on what they feel interested in, rather than what they are told is the most valuable, then we will have real equality.

This equality may never come—more scholarships and programs encouraging girls in CS pop up each day, while nothing of the sort is happening in the humanities—but it’s worth considering. If the aim of programs encouraging women to pursue science is really to emancipate women from barriers that may stop them from doing what they want to do, it is important that we not simultaneously glorify technology at the expense of the humanities. Along with many of my classmates, I have been asked countless times what the “point” is of spending so much money on higher education if I’m going to “waste it” on a degree in literature. As long as we continue to devalue and even degrade the study of arts, there can be no progress in either gender equality or elitist social attitudes that think less of people for what paths they choose.


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