When I began college with a humanities degree, I felt like I was letting down the female gender by not being a Girl in STEM or a Girl Who Codes. I started worrying that I was slipping at the opportunity to “empower myself” by breaking into the male-dominated field and proving the statistics wrong. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered: would I truly be empowered if I were to thrust myself into a field I hated just to wear the Empowered cloak? Would my voice (which supposedly speaks for my entire gender and is crucial to diversity branding) remain intact, or would I be spoken over, eventually becoming too tired to speak at all?
I began to question where these judgments against Girls in Humanities came from and why I felt guilty and ashamed for doing what I love. And in this questioning, I came to understand the root of it. I now realize that they come from a discomfort with subverting patriarchal capitalism’s greatest priority: taking the path of least resistance to gain the most profit in the least amount of time possible.
There’s nothing wrong with “Girls in STEM” campaigns themselves. Many initiatives truly seek to empower young girls to explore their passions and achieve their full potential regardless of a lack of representation. We should of course encourage girls to pursue STEM if they want to. We should raise girls and boys equally to believe that they are capable of anything; we should teach all subjects without gender bias. But we should not push girls into STEM if they have other interests, and we most definitely should not shame them for pursuing female-dominated fields.
A girl shouldn’t be pressured into STEM under the guise of “empowerment,” with the underlying intention of commodifying her labor to become more marketable under capitalism. Is it true empowerment if the choice isn’t hers? Is it empowerment if the goal is to appease recruiters and eventually contribute as much as possible to the capitalist engine that could care less whether or not she’s empowered?
Young people are increasingly encouraged to pursue STEM in order to be successful. This is because we define success through a capitalistic framework of profit gain and efficiency as the Information Age increasingly demands a labor force hyperliterate in STEM. It is certainly true that girls are underrepresented in STEM fields, but it is also true that some girls just have a greater interest in something else.
A study across 67 countries found that girls aren’t necessarily worse at STEM subjects than boys, but are just better at reading. Pushing STEM on girls from all angles (school, media, peers, family, etc.) either implicitly or explicitly discourages them from pursuing particularly female-dominated fields. This perpetuates the idea that female-dominated fields are inherently less valuable, that the gifts and skills girls contribute have no worth in the real world. This teaches girls that they should ditch their own interests to follow an outlined path that is more acceptable, namely because it is more male than female-dominated (whether this is communicated explicitly or not).
An Oxford study showed that once women enter a field, the pay rate drops dramatically (when more women started becoming biologists, wages decreased by 18%). Thus, the way we prize STEM seems to fall in line with this pattern: a field that is male-dominated, defined through more traditionally masculine traits, and seen as the current surefire path to success within capitalism. In her thoughtful article, “Don’t Make Girls Study STEM (Unless They Want To),” Sarah Butler asks the reader to imagine society pushing boys into female-dominated fields like nursing or teaching, which of course would never happen. Some may argue that this is because these are objectively lower-paying, less prestigious fields. But why are they? Because they are female-dominated and work towards bettering society rather than gaining a profit and thus are in direct competition with capitalism.
This is not only harmful to young girls but the world at large. Deprioritizing female-dominated careers such as social work, education, and creative industries which require traditionally feminine skills like empathy, collaboration, and expression leads us further down the rabbit hole of inequality and environmental destruction that patriarchal capitalism has created, where “the ability to acquire resources, increase power, and expand civilization become the most valuable skills when looking through a male-oriented, Eurocentric lens” (Goddard).
We must see that true empowerment would mean embracing our gifts and passions, whether it's coding, writing, flying planes or teaching second grade, that this is more empowering, more freeing than funneling ourselves into a field that makes us feel validated by an outdated, capitalistic measurement of success. To me, this would break far more glass ceilings than increasing representation in a male-dominated field.
My point is not to single out a specific field or discourage women from pursuing male-dominated fields. But it is harmful to blast girls with messages that they will only be empowered in STEM because it prioritizes capitalist values: the instinct to grow and dominate at all costs without considering the personal or societal implications.
Unless we address the patriarchal capitalism at the root of women’s inequality and oppression, initiatives to get girls in STEM or other historically male-dominated fields could even risk further perpetuating it.
While I still feel insecure sometimes about not being a girl in STEM, I also take pride in knowing that I’m studying what I love and will someday pursue a career that helps others and makes me happy. By refusing to enter a workforce just to feel validated by copious profit gains that drive excessive consumerism, I hope that I can come to understand what it truly meant to be a girl not in STEM.
To view my final presentation for the Life Within Capitalism course taught at Duke by Dirk Philipsen, visit this link: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1b5RSwjROpYhNmY-O7P-53OKRLrSNe6PHrCdJeN_n6u0
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