Lack of Access Led to Exclusion of Women from STEM: Kirthi Jayakumar

Women in Tech

On September 8, 2017, I sat in a room full of amazing women at an event organized by the US Consulate General with Jennifer Iannolo of The Concordia Project. The exchange brought up insights on the many gaps in the journey of seeking to empower women. Some mentioned that the biggest gap was the loss in translation of girls from school and college in the workplace. Some talked about the gap between the passing and the implementation of a legislative framework. But everyone agreed that patriarchy was the leviathan that propped all the inequality up.

Many young women in rural areas of Tamil Nadu cannot pursue science, even if they want to because STEM education is far more expensive than the arts streams.

One of the most interesting things that came up in the conversation was women in science. A professor of Physics who sat beside me talked about how many young women in rural areas of Tamil Nadu cannot pursue science, even if they want to because STEM education is far more expensive than the arts streams. She talked about how families choose between their boys and girls to determine who gets a shot at STEM education. All of the times, it is the boys that get to go. What’s beautifully interesting is that she talked about how women have truly always remained at the forefront of science and STEM – and it is the lack of access that has led to their exclusion and erasure.

I’m going to share some examples that she shared with us that afternoon. Along with a few more that came up when I read deeper.

Avvaiyar, a famous poet of the Tamil canon, in the Sangam period (circa 1st and 2nd Century AD) had the prescience to talk about splitting up the atom. All this talk about nanotechnology, 2000 years ago! She also referenced Mileva Maric-Einstein, Albert Einstein’s wife. Much of Einstein’s work is attributable to Mileva. Her efforts have been well documented in letters written by Einstein himself, and in her conversations with her friends. In their divorce agreement, Einstein promised her his Nobel Prize money. A bid to persuade a reluctant Mileva to agree to divorce him. Later, the couple’s first son said that Mileva gave up chasing her scientific ambitions after marrying Einstein.

She also went on to suggest that many, many women in history wrote their papers and observations. However, they got them published under male pseudonyms.

I got home that day and furiously thumbed through history. Two days later, I had a play to perform, called HerStory. I was already telling the story of Rosalind Franklin through verse. For the uninitiated, she was the reason the world knows what it knows about DNA. Her study of the diffractions in X-rays helped Watson and Crick, who took credit and a Nobel Peace Prize for her work. But what I discovered that day left me feeling numb. Erasure had ensured to elbow out years and years of women in STEM.

University of California’s Professor of Law, Joan C. Williams suggests that there are five patterns to this systemic erasure that is as old as the hills.

  • One pattern, she says, is the burden of having to prove themselves again and again. There appears to be an assumption that a woman isn’t “going to be able to cut it”. Therefore, they are made to reassert themselves over and over again to prove their claims. This impact is doubled with other identity elements as intersectionality informs.
  • A second pattern is that women have often had to behave in what Joan identifies as “masculine ways” in order to be seen as competent. Remarks such as “I didn’t expect someone female would be like this” are often thrown at women. Some women are told to dumb down their ambitions or to become more amiable.
  • A third pattern, Joan says, is called “The Maternal Wall”. Here, when working women have children, they “find themselves running into a wall.” With their commitment being constantly questioned, and their competence being undermined, women are treated as though motherhood should be their lone “career.”
  • The fourth pattern is what Joan calls the “Tug-of-War”. Here, women who have been discriminated against at earlier points in their careers/work lives tend to distance themselves with other women. She references the testimony of an Asian-American statistician who described “how an older woman who probably had to go through hell” made sure younger women did, too.
  • Finally, Isolation – where women are not able to socially engage with their colleagues. Since that is often likely to be seen as “negatively affecting their perceptions of competence.”

Erasure has resulted in muting the needs of women who want to seek out to study a STEM field.

The erasure of women in STEM throughout history and its continuation is a tremendous burden on the path to making STEM education accessible. Erasure has resulted in muting the needs of women who want to seek out to study a STEM field. It has resulted in expensive education that is forced to become a matter of circumstance-driven choice for families to pursue the notion that their sons are more deserving than their daughters. Erasure has led to the undermining of women and their contributions. It has led the world to be constantly skewed in favour of encouraging more men into the world and keeping women out of the picture…

Also Read: Women In Tech Must Persist Says Kirthi Jayakumar in new column Codess of Small Things

Kirthi Jayakumar is the founder of The Red Dot Foundation. The views expressed in the column are author’s own.