Should Women/Girls In STEM Gender Equality Initiatives Be Addressing Sexual Harassment Issues?

How do we engage more girls and women in the STEM world? It is a question, and a topic, we have covered multiple times on our site, along with promoting the many wonderful organizations, initiatives and campaigns looking to change the status quo. But when we continue to read widespread stories about harassment at some of the biggest tech companies (Uber, Tinder, Venture Capital firm Kleiner Perkins, and Tesla just to name a few) it’s clear that the inherent gender problem is about more than just getting women interested in STEM.

There is a cyclical problem of gender inequality continuing to be at the core of many of the STEM world’s problems (as in other male-dominated sectors) and until this becomes a fundamental part of strategies to diversify, quotas and cute campaigns are rendered useless.

In an op-ed for Vanity Fair about how to “break up the boy’s club in Silicon Valley” which was prompted in large part due to the now-infamous Tesla and Uber harassment accounts, Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki expressed frustration at an industry that is so quick to embrace change, yet slow to break free of its “regrettable past”. She mentions that her own company has gone from having only 24% of women, to 30%.

Her piece outlines a few key strategies, such as making gender diversity a priority (using Netflix CEO Reed Hastings as an example for his strong, progressive stance on paid family leave which had a knock-on effect at Microsoft and Amazon), providing resources and support for women and minority groups at a company, and addressing the gender imbalance from those who are in a position of privilege.

Her strategies are indeed important, and the increased presence of women in (especially) positions of leadership, will slowly chip away at the idea that Silicon Valley, or the STEM world at large is just another “boy’s club”. But does that undo the underlying sexism that clearly still exists, or does it just throw a convenient bandaid on it, by overwhelming the sexism with quotas, ideas, strategies, and a bigger female presence?

Improving workplace culture is indeed an imperative and Susan Wojcicki is not wrong. But we personally would’ve liked to see her dig into the sexual harassment aspects of the gender imbalance, as that is not something you can fix with an improved paid family leave policy.

“The allegations of explicit gender discrimination that Susan [Fowler, the woman who wrote about her distressing time at Uber] and A.J. [Vandermeyden, who shared what happened to her at Tesla] describe are unacceptable, and any report of harassment deserves a thorough examination. But implicit biases can also harm women in the workplace through more subtle forms of gender discrimination,” wrote Susan.

That subtle pivot away from the more serious topic of sexual harassment, to focusing on the more digestible, perhaps less “controversial” topic of implicit bias is a problem. Given that Susan is in an incredible position of leadership in the tech world, her voice could be a leader in this fight. But this issue isn’t just about her or her op-ed. It is how the industry is willing to (or not) look at sexual harassment as a whole.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has been very outspoken about diversity in the workforce, and has been great at not shying away from talking about being a member of the LGBTQ community. Yet, even he acknowledges there is a problem and that companies like the one he oversees should be doing better. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the data. Tim said in an interview in 2015 that women and diversity are the future, yet their latest figures show only 32% of Apple employees are women, and 22% are underrepresented minorities.

Apple is pledging millions of dollars on initiatives that they believe will have a long term effect on diversifying the industry and eventually quashing issues like gender imbalance and sexual harassment cases, because more women will be the norm. However, lumping two important but separate issues together is never going to work out. One is specific to the STEM world, the other is a pervasive sexist issue that exists in all forms of society undergirded by the notion that there are people who don’t believe women are equal human beings, and their bodies and lives are fair play.

Tim Cook, to his credit, does see how this will be a detriment to the technology sector in the future if it is not addressed and the percentage of women and minorities in the industries continues to be low.

“I think the U.S. will lose its leadership in technology if this doesn’t change. Women are such an important part of the workforce. If STEM-related fields continue to have this low representation of women, then there just will not be enough innovation in the United States. That’s just the simple fact of it.,” he said

“The impatient side says we’re not moving fast enough. Everyone deserves the same human rights. I don’t hear anybody asking for special rights – just the same rights. I think that’s true not only in the gay community but many other communities as well,” he added, in regard to why diversity is important.

A recent study conducted by Geeky Girl Reality, a non-profit which examines how women’s experiences influence their interests in science and technology, found that female role models have a significant impact on the number of next-generation STEM leaders and participants being girls.

“Recent studies show that only 23% of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals are women, and 27% of these are likely to leave their job within the first year. The Geeky Girl Reality research project aims to add valuable insights into the question “Why aren’t more women entering and remaining in science and technology? What’s causing this gender gap?” said a press release about their findings.

They surveyed 163 women between the ages of 15-46 from 16 countries around the world, and found up to 68% girls who had the presence of a female mentor or role model in their life were more likely to declare a STEM field as their chosen career in the future.

Is there room to discuss the realities of harassment in the workforce? With more and more high-profile cases going viral (which we acknowledge don’t necessarily represent the entirety of women’s experiences in STEM or even just technology, but is very real and serious nonetheless) strategies to improve numbers and diversify work environments cannot continue to ignore the gender equality issue.

Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ movement isn’t exactly going to hold much weight if women are leaning into hostile work environments that are not being addressed or fixed in favor of hitting higher quotas which look good to the public on diversity reports. This is not simply a pipeline issue, because rest assured girls in STEM initiatives and organizations liek Black Girls Code, and Girls Who Code are thriving. It is the industry that is the problem.

Giving women and minorities opportunities in STEM is absolutely important and imperative to the future of these industries, like Tim Cook said. The question is how these initiatives and strategies address and weed out attitudes, like UK Nobel Scientist Tim Hunt who caused a major stir worldwide after claiming women are “too distracting” and “when you criticize them, they cry” in 2015. That has nothing to do with the fact that a woman he worked alongside may be qualified for the position, and everything to do with his inherent gender bias toward women in general which must be dealt with if the STEM world ever hopes to see true equality.


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