Feminists and Other Women at Odds over STEM Workplace Equity

[In a previous post, I highlighted some errors in a previous Pew Research Center report by Cary Funk and Kim Parker, on women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. Funk and Parker have now published a new Pew report (2018) that repeats some of those errors.

This post takes the approach of restating that new Pew report. As in my previous restatements, this post uses the authors’ own data — in some places, their own words — to tell a more truthful story about what they found. I have also added comments to draw attention to important factors not explained clearly in the Pew report.]

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A feminist minority of women appears to consider science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workplaces more hostile than do their non-feminist female coworkers. This divergence emerges in female responses in recent research.

As shown in this chart, recent research by Pew Research Center found that half (50%) of women in STEM jobs said they have never experienced a single instance of any of eight forms of discrimination in the workplace because of their gender. Note that, as in most articles of this nature, these forms of discrimination were selected to be of particular interest to women; the research did not inquire into forms of gender discrimination that men are more likely to experience.

Note also that a question asking whether mistreatment is “due to gender” may cue respondents to favor “yes” if they are female and “no” if they are male, especially in STEM fields, given the widespread beliefs that such fields disfavor women and that men are not allowed, or at least are not supposed, to complain about gender discrimination. More accurate results may have emerged if the researchers had simply asked, for instance, whether the respondent has ever been treated as if s/he were not competent, and then compared male and female responses.

Only two of those eight female-oriented forms of discrimination were experienced by more than one out of five women. Those two raise questions of their own. First, there is the complaint, by 29% of women, that they earned less than a man doing the same job. Accuracy of responses to this question would depend upon knowing how much colleagues make. Pew did not ask where the complaining women got their information. That is important because research has long since established that, overall, women do not make significantly less than men doing the same job. No doubt there are exceptions. But a claim that 29% of women in STEM fields make less than equally qualified males appears likely to be based on rumor or assumption rather than fact.

Second, there was the complaint that 29% of women had been treated, at least once, as if they were not competent. People can be cruel in the workplace. They have been known to use a variety of means to belittle one another. People can also be insensitive. It is not hard to imagine the male geek who, by intention or by sheer cluelessness, has a way of making female coworkers feel stupid. One such male, offending many such females, should not be construed as a statistical thunderstorm beclouding the working lives of women throughout an entire department or company. In other words, there were better ways to ask the question that Pew asked here. An approach not seeking to produce garbage data might home in on the people doing the offending, and the context and nature of the offense. For instance, a thoughtless remark by the mailboy is not on a par with a condescending sneer from one’s supervisor. Indeed, research (below) suggests that women themselves are responsible for the majority of instances of ill treatment of women in the workplace.

Moreover, one need not assume that all such treatment would be cruel or callous. In its research report, Pew erred in presenting these self-report data as if they were known to be accurate. The question of whether a woman was treated as incompetent is, more precisely, a question of whether she felt or believed she was being so treated. Sometimes her belief would be right; sometimes it would be wrong; often she would have no idea of what people are actually thinking and saying about her, be it positive or negative. Regardless of his/her personal beliefs, a good researcher would try to determine whether women in STEM fields tend to be highly sensitive to such treatment — whether some are, in fact, hypersensitive. One would especially expect overreactions when studying the responses of women in STEM fields, given the widespread belief that STEM jobs are hostile to women.

Being made to feel stupid does not necessarily imply that the other person actually considers you stupid. The teacher who brings a student to recognize the error in his/her thinking, and thus perhaps to feel foolish, may be doing a good thing and achieving a good outcome, even if the student does not necessarily appreciate it at the time — even if the teacher does not handle it perfectly. Similarly, a colleague who sees a solution, and who does not understand why you don’t see it, may make you feel stupid, but that may not be due to either intention or cluelessness; it may be a by-product of his/her simple attempt to work through the problem with you.

To address yet another consideration that Pew neglected, there is a fair question of whether any of the women who reported being treated as not competent were, in fact, not competent. One would expect to encounter some incompetents in any reasonably large workplace. There have been claims that women who are not competent are being put into STEM jobs simply to help supervisors or companies to feel or appear nondiscriminatory. As a matter of statistics, when women generally tend to lack experience, interest, and/or ability in so many STEM fields (involving e.g., mechanical devices, computer gaming, spatial reasoning, military applications), it is going to be difficult to employ equal numbers of equally competent females. The greater the insistence upon equal numbers at any cost, the more likely an increase in incompetence. Thus, in Pew’s research, there may well have been more females than males who correctly perceived that they were being treated as if they were not competent, where there was reason for such treatment (see e.g., Coffman et al., 2017).

In Pew’s findings, the largest percentage of female complaints of gender discrimination came from the small minority (19%) of women who work in settings with mostly men. Of that small minority, fully 78% said they had experienced at least one of those eight forms of gender discrimination, at least once in their careers. Unfortunately, Pew did not try to learn whether there was anything atypical about that small minority of women. Consider some possibilities:

  • Some of the women who decide to go into overwhelmingly male workplaces may enjoy and/or feel comfortable with using female advantages to hold their own and thrive in such environments. For instance, they may find it advantageous to be on the lookout for any excuse to complain loudly, so as to garner cushy treatment.
  • Maybe being an isolated female among so many males is grating and unnatural. Maybe it tends to make such women understandably angry and/or more inclined to perceive discrimination, where a more equal balance would have been better at preserving their mental equilibrium and sense of perspective.
  • Highly attractive women may be especially likely to grow tired of male attention in predominantly male workplaces, even if those men are behaving the same as American men generally, in any type of workplace. In this case, perhaps what matters is not the number of women overall, but the number of attractive women to share the burden of overattention. In other words, some alleged problems with STEM workplaces may primarily reflect problems in relations between the sexes generally.

There may be other possibilities. The Pew research leaves us to guess at their explanatory power. Whatever the explanation, the Pew data do tell us that, even in those predominantly male STEM settings, 52% of women said their gender had not made it harder for them to succeed in their job. For women across all STEM settings, only 20% of women felt that their gender had made it harder for them to succeed at work; 8% felt their gender had made it easier, and 70% felt it had not made much difference. Note, again, that these are self-report data. Objective measures (e.g., hirings, salaries, and promotions of men and women with comparable training or experience) may indicate that female gender actually made things easier for a majority of females, especially in workplaces that are bending over backwards to hire and promote them.

In most respects, Pew found, the challenges women in STEM faced in the workplace were similar to those of women in non-STEM workplaces. Either way, 78% of women said they had never experienced sexual harassment at work. (Pew did not provide guidance on what types of behavior counted as “sexual harassment.” USA Today (Cummings, 2017) observed that Americans are confused on the subject. According to Quick and McFadyen (2016, p. 288), “[O]ne of the main difficulties of studying [sexual harassment] is lack of a clear definition.”) Even among those women who did report experiences of sexual harassment, only 22% considered it a big problem in their workplace. Overall, about 90% of women felt that sexual harassment was either not a problem, or was only a small problem, in their place of employment. Note also that the 22% figure was the same for women in and outside of STEM fields — which one would not expect, if STEM fields were particularly inhospitable to women. Such data seem to call for a focus, not on the workplace, but rather on the feelings, experiences, and biases of that 22% minority.

The situation was somewhat different in the STEM subcategory of computer occupations, where women’s representation has actually decreased from 32% in 1990 to 25% today, consistent with women’s relative lack of interest in computers over the past half-century. Among those women who remained in computer occupations, 74% said they had experienced at least one event that Pew characterized as gender-related discrimination. Yet the details of those supposed instances of discrimination are interesting:

  • 70% of women in computer jobs said they had never experienced a single instance of sexual harassment at work;
  • 58% of women in such jobs did not that feel sexual harassment was even a small problem in their workplace;
  • 69% said their gender had not made it harder to succeed in their job;
  • 69% did not feel that their workplace paid too little attention to increasing gender diversity;
  • 67% felt that women in their workplace were usually treated fairly in the recruiting and hiring process;
  • both men (57%) and women (64%) reported feeling pressure to prove themselves at work some or all of the time; and
  • between men and women in computer jobs, there were no statistically significant differences in perceptions of what would help them succeed on the job.

The most noticeable negative result was that only 43% of women in computer jobs felt that women were usually treated fairly in their workplace in opportunities for promotion. Of course, one would like to see improvement in all of these percentages. Overall, though, it seemed that complaints about gender-based discrimination were coming from only a minority of women. In that case, there would be a question of how far companies should move toward various extremes favored by that minority, possibly at the expense of the majority of women and/or men, of clients/customers, and of the company as a whole.

On the topic of workplace engagement, women in mostly female STEM workplaces were noticeably less likely to think that various activities would help them to succeed at work, compared to women in mostly male workplaces. For example, only 60% of women in mostly female STEM workplaces (as compared to 73% of women in mostly male STEM workplaces) felt that “working harder than others” would help them to get ahead in their job. Similar or greater contrasts were reported for “being assertive,” “being vocal about their work/accomplishments,” and “participating in informal activities with coworkers.” It was not clear what these results suggested about mostly female STEM workplaces. Possibly they were more competitive in their industries for being more laid-back; possibly they were not.

Pew asked various groups (i.e., Americans in general; people working in STEM jobs) what they considered most or least desirable about STEM jobs. Oddly, Pew did not ask women who decided against STEM majors or jobs; yet this would be the group best positioned to clarify why there were not more women in STEM. The Pew data did indicate that, even among people in STEM jobs, women were nearly twice as likely as men to consider it important to have a job focused on helping others, and that women were 43% more likely than men to feel that it was more difficult to balance work and family in STEM jobs than in non-STEM jobs. It seemed, then, that personal preferences tended to explain why there were not more women in STEM.

The Special Case of Women with Graduate Degrees

In the Pew research, women with a graduate degree who worked in STEM jobs were about 50% more likely than other women in STEM to claim that they had experienced gender discrimination at work; they were about 3.5 times more likely to believe their gender had made it harder to succeed on the job; and they were about one-third less likely to believe that women where they work were usually treated fairly when it comes to opportunities for promotion.

Why would women with a graduate degree be so much more likely to report gender discrimination? One possibility could be that they personally experienced a heightened level of vulnerability to such discrimination in graduate school, and thus became appropriately sensitized to rampant sexism in their fields. As discussed in another post, however, that explanation is probably not viable.

Rather, the Pew findings suggest that the sense of grievance may be most concentrated among those who are most privileged. For instance, contrary to the belief that female gender made it harder to succeed in high-level STEM jobs, Williams and Ceci (2015; see CNN summary) found that female applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships in STEM fields generally enjoyed a 2:1 hiring preference over male competitors. Another research piece, by Mullet et al. (2017, pp. 269-278), provided a number of interesting findings about women who were, or could be, at the top of the STEM fields. The following bullet points convey some of those findings, mostly using the words of Mullet et al.:

  • Women with top-level STEM ability tend to have higher verbal ability than STEM-talented males, and are thus more able (and, in fact, more likely) to go into non-quantitative fields (see also The Atlantic, 2018). Some actual or potential STEM women dislike the abstractness in higher-level STEM courses, and prefer practical learning activities to which they can relate. Talented college women who leave STEM cite a change of interest as the reason for their decision to pursue a non-STEM major. Those women who do choose to work in a relatively scientific field tend to gravitate toward disciplines that allow contact with people (e.g., social or life sciences rather than physical sciences or math).
  • Women who are exceptionally talented in STEM tend to be first- or second-generation Americans. Women who persist in STEM may benefit from early counterstereotypical family socialization environments, suggesting the importance of processes unfolding long before their experiences of STEM employment.
  • Black females in engineering are more likely to have naive understandings of their field, and to experience difficulties when they encounter the meritocratic STEM culture. Mullet et al. (p. 272) mention the “double bind” in which black females “may find it difficult to ascertain whether they are treated a certain way because they are Black or a woman”; yet Mullet et al. also voice the complaint of black women who are not interested in the question of whether they are different by dint of being black or female: they don’t want to be thought of in terms of black or female identity (p. 279). Mullet et al. comment repeatedly on cultural hindrances that white males impose upon black females, but offer nothing on the question of whether aspects of black culture (e.g., the source of what they call “naive understandings”) may uniquely discourage black female STEM achievement.
  • The academic and professional goals of STEM women are shaped by their deep beliefs and values, not by an interest in science. STEM women place value on having a part-time career, having close friendships, giving back to the community, and living close to family. Compared to male counterparts, STEM women are more holistic and communal in their orientation toward life, are more focused on social well-being, express motivation to serve people rather than to gain status or wealth, and prefer to spread their commitments over work, friends, family, and community. STEM women who are committed to serving others depend more on recognition from people who would benefit from their altruistic commitments than on recognition from people of stature in their fields.
  • In order to accommodate their nonwork priorities, women scientists who remain in academia tend to seek out positions in small teaching colleges rather than in large research universities. With motherhood, STEM women seek reductions in work hours, take temporary leaves of absence, or become homemakers. Talented women in countries offering long, well-paid maternity leave enjoy the opportunity to put their academic careers on hold without fear of losing their jobs or achievements. According to Mullet et al., however, this does not necessarily work well in STEM, because knowledge in STEM disciplines is less durable than in other fields: theoretical and technical knowledge turnover rates are higher in STEM than in fields such as social sciences or humanities.
  • Power struggles do exist among STEM women. Such women are aware that not all female mentors and advisors are supportive. For instance, established women scientists may arrogate superior positions over other women based on differences in age, academic position, or experience. Some STEM women express beliefs that family-oriented women cannot have both a STEM career and family simultaneously, and would be better suited to a non-STEM profession. (Research by Gabriel et al. (2017) found that women report experiencing more incivility at work from other women than from men.)

Mullet et al. (pp. 278-281, 286) offer suggestions that convey a sense of entitlement among women in STEM fields. Those suggestions include the belief that women in STEM should enjoy special accommodation, including flexibility in the scheduling of work and leisure time; that department leaders should protect women’s interests; that women should receive preference for postdoctoral fellowships; that STEM workplaces should allow women to satisfy their ethic of care as well as their need for intellectual pursuits; and that project leadership should be assigned according to gender rather than qualification. The authors also believe that, in order to accommodate women’s interests, math training should be changed to focus on “authentic practice,” and that female STEM students may be considered talented, not because of any definable characteristic such as ability, but because they possess particular types of cultural capital that align with academia’s norms and expectations.

Notwithstanding the sheer nuttiness of some of the suggestions thus advanced by Mullet et al., it might be tempting to give women advantages in the workplace, if women were now making manlike lifetime commitments to the workplace — accepting that they will not have as much time for their children as they would like, or that as a result the kids will bond primarily with their spouses, or that they cannot afford to have kids at all, or that their working careers may not have a lot of time for their “ethic of care” or for life outside of work. As Mullet et al. remind us, however, this is not the situation. Much the contrary: America is being asked to give these elite women preferential advantages for postdocs and other opportunities precisely because they don’t want to make the sacrifices that the guys have to make. The recommended favoritism is so extreme that, as just noted, people like Mullet et al. actually suggest that STEM ability need not be a priority in STEM hiring, because that focus on ability may interfere with the employment of females.

For the record, I agree with criticisms of workaholic expectations in the contemporary workforce. I agree that there should be much more concern with the ethic of care — indeed, with ethics generally — and with the balance of work and life. I just don’t agree that employers should privilege women over men in such matters. That would be rank sexism. Women are not the only ones with non-work priorities in life. I don’t believe in abetting employers’ divide-and-conquer strategies. I believe men and women are in this together, and are most likely to succeed if they are both in it for each other — not just for themselves.

Finally, Mullet et al. (p. 279) describe “the reproduction of masculine norms in STEM” as something that “some STEM women” also perpetuate. This suggests that, feminist dogma notwithstanding, they are not really “masculine” norms — that, perhaps, many males might not favor them — but are, rather, STEM norms, a way of doing things that seems reasonable to people with certain priorities or abilities, including especially people who choose STEM careers. Consider, for instance, the possibility that STEM priorities, at least in some fields and/or workplaces, may favor non-neurotypicals (e.g., those who would formerly have been diagnosed with the predominantly male Asperger’s Syndrome). In that case, feminists are not scoring points against men. They are scoring points against people with (potentially very useful) mental disabilities who have found, in tech, a haven for their type.

To the extent that STEM priorities are not really about male-vs.-female, a preoccupation with feminist perspectives would obscure the real issues. For instance, I share Mullet’s preference for an arrangement in which “merit and integrity are recognized and rewarded by authorities without the need for self-advertisement” (p. 280). But that would not be a feminist innovation. For centuries, the academic world formed by white males has largely supported such an ethic: for most scholars, until fairly recently, “self-advertisement” has been predominantly a matter of publication of one’s work — and, in an improvement on Mullet’s suggestion, recognition has been conferred, not by “authorities” of unspecified pedigree, but by knowledgeable readers.

Plainly, Mullet et al., and these Pew researchers, do not speak for all women with stellar abilities in math and science. Yet this is, again, a failure of the Pew work especially: by pretending that all women share the same views and risks in STEM workplaces, they leave all women vulnerable to negative as well as positive interpretations. If we may focus particularly on those women with graduate STEM degrees who most fit the impressions offered by such researchers, we appear to be facing a desire, not to be treated as equals, but rather to be advantaged through reconstruction of the workplace in a form they prefer. That certainly appears to have been the unadmitted agenda of the crude distortions perpetrated Pew Research Center authors Funk and Parker, exaggerating claims of misogyny experienced by only a minority of women to justify their attack upon male-dominant STEM fields generally.

Distortions aside, there would surely would be much to like, in a female-designed STEM workplace. To avoid being parasitical upon the efforts and successes of the STEM males who built those workplaces, though, such changes would have to deliver not merely pleasure to the women being catered to, but also globally competitive results. They might succeed in that. The paucity of leading female STEM entrepreneurs suggests caution, however, in the project of remaking STEM workplaces wholesale to favor the preferences of elite women. There seems to be a risk of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. The evidence here suggests that the higher rates of complaints registered by STEM women with graduate degrees may simply reflect a heightened sense of entitlement among some such women, generating potentially destructive expectations.


The Pew research supports the impression that women decline to pursue STEM careers because such careers are hard, involving work that has more to do with manipulating things than with helping people, and requiring skills and time commitments that are not ideal for those attempting to “have it all.” I don’t blame women for seeking a better kind of career. In sympathy with such priorities I, myself, once made the terrible mistake of choosing a career in the highly feminist field of social work. In the wake of that experience, I find myself advocating much greater social and economic recognition for the kinds of tasks that women have historically found compelling; I consider such tasks neither trivial nor necessarily feminine.

STEM fields are not designed to be hostile to women. They are designed to achieve STEM-related goals. Admittedly, those goals can be incompatible with the priorities of non-STEM people. That does not necessarily make them bad. Redesigning STEM fields across the board to fit some stereotype of “what women want” could be as idiotic as redesigning social work vocations across the board to fit more comfortably with some stereotype of what male social workers might prefer, just because males are a minority and someone thinks they shouldn’t be.

There is room — there might even be a serious need — for wholesale redesign of STEM workplaces to favor the preferences of the most highly educated women. But, if so, such a redesign should address the concerns of all stakeholders, including not only present or future practitioners, male and female, elite or not, but also the consumers or clients of services rendered. This post raises the question of whether Pew’s significant misrepresentation of its own data is due to wrongheaded favoritism toward a disgruntled elite of privileged women who — unlike the more altruistic stereotype of women generally — may not be prioritizing any stakeholders other than themselves.

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I notified Pew of this post on January 30, 2018. So far, Pew has not replied.



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