The "women in STEM" movement is not as innocuous as it seems.
Efforts to increase the percentage of women entering the field of STEM are widespread. From Girls Who Code to Million Women Mentors, plenty of organizations aim to recruit young women into a STEM career.
The label proudly worn by women pursuing STEM-related areas of study comes with a hefty price, and I'm not just talking about tuition. What can serve as an epithet of pride can also serve as a monumental burden.
There is an immense stigma around leaving the STEM field. I began my first semester of college as a medical studies major because I felt I would only be seen as prestigious or worthy if I was pursuing a job in STEM. After realizing I was hoodwinked by social pressure into choosing the major, I decided to transfer to journalism. It was not an easy decision.
When I told my peers and college mentors I was leaving the medical field, I heard things like "But you're a woman in STEM! Your grades are great! Why leave?" It seemed as though going from the sciences to the arts was a step down on the ladder of prestige.
"When I was debating on changing majors, it was difficult. I had described myself as a 'woman in STEM' for so long that it felt like a betrayal to leave that label behind," said Youla Tricia Onayan, a freshman who switched her major from health sciences to journalism and mass communication. "There was guilt before I even switched out. It was a heavy decision because it was so different from everything I've known."
Leaving behind a label that exudes intelligence and excellence is no easy feat, especially when the University puts emphasis on STEM. Students may feel as though they must become STEM majors not just to uphold the University's reputation but to reap the full benefits of an ASU education.
At ASU, a school continually named No. 1 in innovation, there is a culture that emphasizes the superiority of STEM. An announcement from the University declaring its maintenance of this title for the eighth year in a row features a video that clearly shows what ASU thinks of as "innovation." A girl faces the camera wearing a VR headset. A boy in a greenhouse exhibits his botany skills by potting a plant. People wearing lab protective equipment walk together toward the University's wonderfully innovative future.
Of course, the innovation in question is vastly STEM-related.
Luckily, my status as a woman hasn't made me feel as though I wasn't competent enough to have a career in STEM. As seen in the University's video, ASU is eager to show that women in STEM are welcome on campus. In fact, my gender only put more pressure on me to stay in the field. After all, shouldn't I be one of the people increasing the percentage of women in the STEM workforce?
Therein lies the issue; women are being treated as statistics, rather than individuals.
I won't sit here and say statistics don't matter. Of course, it's disappointing that only 28% of STEM jobs are held by women. That doesn't mean that strategies for increasing the number of women in STEM are appropriate. The apparent need for more women in STEM manifests itself in movements that reduce women to numbers.
From aesthetically pleasing infographic pleas for more women to join the STEM field to the oh-so-catchy "I am a woman in STEM! Bunsen burner, on!" TikTok sound, the pressure for young women who are even slightly interested in a STEM career to join the field is everywhere.
"Personally, I saw a lot of pre-med content (online), but journalism never even came up," Onayan said. "Social media backs you into a corner and narrows it down so much that you don’t get exposure to other areas."
It's crucial that we instill confidence in women from a young age so they can go on to a career in STEM if they choose. The confidence gap between boys and girls in regard to mathematical abilities has repercussions in the long run for the number of men versus women who enter the STEM field. Improving this discrepancy could very likely naturally lead to more women choosing a career in this area.
I believe it's more important for women to be able to choose what they want to do without unnecessary pressure to choose one field over another. When picking a major and figuring out one's career path, a person's genuine enthusiasm and fulfillment far outweighs their desire or pressure to grow to a historically underrepresented demographic in a field.
My worth as a young professional is not dependent on if I am a STEM major or not. If a woman wishes to pursue a STEM career, that's wonderful. If she doesn't, that's just as good.
Strength should not lie in numbers, but in passion.
Edited by Kate Duffy, Jasmine Kabiri, Angelina Steel, Greta Forslund and Piper Hansen.