Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

SySTEMic Undervaluation: Why Girls Face a Never-Ending Uphill Battle

By Elizabeth ZelkoPublished March 11, 2015

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As more and more technology companies in Silicon Valley and beyond seek to encourage and push for more women to enter STEM fields, many seem to ignore that for women, choosing STEM is only the very first in an endless series of hurdles they will likely face in their pursuit of acceptance in a male-dominated field and culture.
By Elizabeth Zelko, 3/11/15

Sitting hunched over of a laptop screen, text editor open, fingers poised over the keys, ready to do their worst, I never know quite what to do when a male classmate remarks "even you should be able to do this." The first few times I heard it, I thought it was personal. I thought to myself "I'm just not as smart" or "I'm the weak link." But then I started to notice a pattern. My classmates never said that to another male student (even one who was struggling more than me), the few female teaching assistants (TAs) I had were regarded less highly by my classmates, and male TAs would often address my male classmates instead of me when answering a question I had asked. These phenomena bothered me, but I had already begun to see them as "the way things are" and nearly stopped thinking about them at all. It wasn't until a female classmate and I, who were working with digital circuits for the first time, asked a simple question and were told by a male TA that maybe we ought to "consider finding a different major" that I started to become truly upset. I was equally disconcerted when I mentioned to a family member that I had applied for an internship at a tech company and he responded that the company would be difficult to get into because one had to "know how to code," as if that were completely out of the question for me.


I have experienced the world of computer science and STEM for exactly three years and these are just a few of the things I have encountered. The worst part is that these things don't go away upon graduation. A recent article in Newsweek enumerated some of the more awful things women in tech have been subjected to, including a female co-founder at Tinder whose title was revoked because board members felt her being female made the company look like a joke, multiple female entrepreneurs being sexually harassed by investors, and the existence of "code girls," the Silicon Valley equivalent of NFL cheerleaders. For many outside of the tech industry, the widely publicized Gamergate altercation provided a glimpse of the aggressive sexism faced by many women in STEM fields. Some in the industry hoped that such an overtly violent, misogynist campaign would prompt some kind of action or at least greater awareness among the general public. Unfortunately, beyond a few pledges to protect diversity in gaming signed by game developers and some cash thrown out for "diversity recruitment," companies in the industry seem to have done little.

The problem is that people are incorrectly identifying the problem. The White House, Girls Who Code, Google, Intel, the media, and seemingly everyone else these days is working on encouraging women and girls to go into STEM fields, and that is, of course, a good thing. The media has in particular emphasized that young girls are not encouraged enough growing up, prompting the creation of female scientist Lego sets, and the ill-advised book Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer (in which Barbie admits she herself cannot code and delegates all of the coding to her male classmates). Beyond the fact that the scientist Lego sets were a one-time exclusive and the Barbie book was outrageously sexist, clicking on the "Girls" category of the Legos website brings up pages and pages filled with dream houses, pool parties, palaces, and hair salons with descriptions like "Open the fridge and make a meal for the family in the kitchen" or "Get in the shower to freshen up before a big pampering session at the vanity table." Obviously, such toys do not do much to dispel stereotypes nor to encourage girls to aim high or promote interest in STEM careers, so making that push is a great first step. It's the part that comes next —where women are systemically underestimated, told to find a different major, referred to in the workplace as "eye-candy," constantly made to feel that they are, by nature, not as smart — that will cause the movement to break down.  After women decide to go into technology, maybe companies should consider how much they will have to put up with when they get there. If companies really want women in the interest of having a team of people with diverse perspectives and ideas rather than to fill a diversity requirement, maybe they should look at themselves first; talk to the women who work there, figure out where the problems are, figure out how to fix them, make sexist or inappropriate language a fire-able offense, hold clients and investors to these same standards, sever ties if they don't abide by them. Any or all of the aforementioned actions are doable, no matter how much companies will argue they are "bad for business." If companies want diversity, if they want to truly be an "equal opportunity employer," they shouldn't even need to think twice.