Tag Archives: stereotype threat

How Science-Geek Culture Discourages Female Science-Geeks

The majority of commenters agreed that women could not excel in math, due to biology and evolution. In Slashdot Science, the commenters were mostly grown men with science degrees. I was a nineteen-year-old girl with only a high school diploma and a love of science. They were more educated than me, and I wanted to learn from them.

Whenever I encountered a Slashdot article about science and gender, I read the comments, trying to learn more about myself. I felt sick to my stomach each time. I used mental gymnastics to reconcile my love of science with science-credentialed, male elders proclaiming with certainty that female brains were unfit for math and science. They were the experts, after all. I was only a young, female science student.

Math and science are hard. I worried that when I found something challenging in math or science, it was because I was a girl and lacked the mental machinery to understand it. (I thought of myself as a “girl”, because I was still technically a teenager.) I accepted evolution. Many times, I had panick attacks over the possibility that I had innate, hard-wired mental limitations. Before graduating with a science degree, I was unproven. There was no proof that I could be a science person, but I already saw mountains of scientific evidence suggesting that I could not be a science person. Unproven male geeks don’t struggle with science research telling them that they can’t do science when they start to try.

Only after I graduated with a science degree did I feel I had the authority to challenge Slashdotters. Only after I graduated did I feel like a real adult. After I graduated, I was livid, knowing that Slashdot commenters were merely conjecturing casually about my mental limitations, unwittingly crushing the self-esteem of my younger geek self.

Sexism on the Internet—especially discussion websites about science, computers, and math—are like guided missiles targeting and damaging the self-esteem of young female geeks. Female geeks are most likely to see male geeks discuss our alleged mental inferiority in math and science. Non-geek women are unlikely to see these comments, because they are not the ones reading Slashdot, Digg, reddit, Hacker News, techcrunch, or Ars Technica.

For many male geeks, conjecturing about women’s mental and career potential is just an intellectual exercise, and stating personal and scientific hypotheses about women as if they are scientific facts is harmless. For us, it is personal and disturbing.

Across the calculus sections, women outperformed men on grades.

This post was originally published at Restructure!

Several recent studies have suggested that the gender gap in STEM fields is caused not by bias, but simply by different choices made by men and women. What the new research shows, Dasgupta said, is choice isn’t as simple as people think. “People assume that these choices are free choices, based on talent and interest and motivation,” Dasgupta said. “But these data suggest that the meaning of choices, of what it means to choose math or science, is more complicated. Even talented people may not choose math or science not because they don’t like it or are not good at it, but because they feel that they don’t belong.”

Inoculation Against Stereotype by Scott Jaschik (Inside Higher Ed)

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Letting down my entire gender

Years ago, probably around when I started my master’s degree, I had a chat with a friend about grad school, and she was telling me about how she’d made the decision not to continue on for her PhD. She had a lot of good reasons that just made a lot of sense for her life and her family and her goals, but she mentioned that although she was sure it was the right choice for her, sometimes she felt like she was letting down her entire gender because so few women continue on to do a PhD.

I’m reminded of this because that’s a theme that’s come up in a few comments on my recent post about impostor syndrome.

Quill says,

I’m torn because there’s still time, I could go back to studying computer science. I do think female representation in STEM is Important and I hate myself for taking the “easy” option and leaving a hostile environment (rather than continuing to try to fix it)

Restructure says,

I felt really bad for dropping these courses, because it felt like I was letting down my entire gender, and by dropping the course, the male students’ stereotypes about women would be confirmed.

I wish I could say I’m immune to this, but when you’re one in a small minority (be it due to gender, race, sexual orientation, disability/ability, etc.) it’s hard to deny that it’s a factor. Guilt about not being able to do everything strikes everyone. Parents, teachers, pastors… probably even politicians. But I think it’s worse for those of us who are minorities in some way. You might be the only person “like you” your colleagues will ever see. You want to be a paragon of people like you. You want them all to come away with you as a shining counterexample the next time they hear someone say “$minority can’t do $foo.” It’s not just that you need them to be impressed by you, but that you’re representing your entire minority. There’s a world of difference between competing on a sports team and representing your country in the olympics. You want to do your best not only for you, but for everyone like you.

And that’s just the pressure you’re putting on yourself. Then there’s the requests for you to represent $people-like-you. “We need women for our co-ed sports team” or “we need you to advise the board on how we can better meet the needs of disabled folk” or “I need some dating advice and you’re the only woman I know…” or “we need you to talk about your experiences as an immigrant.” And you’re suited to the job, and maybe you want to help even, but you’ve got 30 of these requests and you barely have enough time to do your own job let alone all these other things.

Saying no is extra hard when you’re trying to be that paragon super-$minority and improve the world for $minorities worldwide. What if being on that committee resulted in them hiring more $people-like-you? What if your conference talk changed someone’s opinion of $people-like-you? What if you inspired more $people-like-you to do what you love? Are you cutting off these possibilities by saying no?

And then there’s the spotlight. You are one of few $people-like-you, so people notice what you do or don’t do. People can be more resentful when you say no because they don’t know who else to turn to, and they can’t understand why you might choose to turn down such a great opportunity because they haven’t got 10 of those on their desks for that day alone. You try to gripe about it to people, and they’re utterly unsympathetic, “Oh, my life is so hard, everyone pays attention to me. wah wah.”

So you feel guilty. For yourself, for other people. You feel like changing the world rests in your hands, and you let the world down because you had to say no. You had to quit. You had to hide. You were capable of doing it — that was not in question — but you didn’t want to and you’re worried people will think that was a sign of weakness. You chose not to. And you’re feeling guilty.

I wish I had some magical advice to deal with the paragon guilt, but sadly I don’t. But I have a few non-magical things I’ve found help me:

  • Practice saying no, and learn to say “Let me check my schedule and get back to you on that…” so you have time to think and make the best choice you can in a sometimes very hard situtation.
  • Seek out more $people-like-you. Maybe they’d be happy to do some of the things you can’t (e.g. there are women who’d be happy to speak who just don’t get asked as often). Maybe you just need someone who can empathise with your problems. Maybe they’ll know a better way to help.
  • Seek out allies who aren’t as much like you. They can help with some of those requests too, and it can’t hurt for them to understand the problems you face.
  • Remember sometimes the demands on $people-like-you are just going to exceed the resources because there are few of you. That’s not your fault.
  • Try not to let guilt stop you from making choices that make sense for you. You’re probably going to want to make some sacrifices for $people-like-you, but you can’t help anyone if you’re burned out, so try to find a balance.
  • Remind yourself of all the awesome stuff you have been able to do. Save thank you letters. Contemplate indirect impacts you might have had. Think about things you did well that weren’t related to being a minority at all, but are awesomeness that people might now associate with your minority.

So… what makes you feel like you’re letting down your entire gender/race/sexual-orientation, etc? What are your coping strategies? I think this sort of guilt is felt by lots of people, just magnified by being a minority, so feel free to provide links to advice and coping strategies that are more general.

Linkspamming from the mountaintops (29th November, 2010)

  • A Very Special Episode of Grey Areas: Privilege Denying Dude Edition: In social justice, not all tactics that are divisive are effective, but all tactics that are effective are divisive. That doesn’t mean we should set our phasers to divide, but when a tactic is labeled as divisive or radical, there is a chance it might be one worth considering.
  • HTML pseudocode cross-stitch for geek feminist gift-giving.
  • 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics: Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences about why they are important to you… This simple writing exercise may not seem like anything ground-breaking, but its effects speak for themselves.
  • Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora: Sarah Mei writes The “gender” field in a person’s profile was originally a dropdown menu, with three choices: blank, male, and female. My change made it an optional text field that was blank to start. A wide open frontier! Enter anything you want.
  • Grandma’s Superhero Therapy (18 photos) – My Modern Metropolis: GO SUPER MAMIKA!!!!! A few years ago, French photographer Sacha Goldberger found his 91-year-old Hungarian grandmother Frederika feeling lonely and depressed. To cheer her up, he suggested that they shoot a series of outrageous photographs in unusual costumes, poses, and locations.
  • New-ish site you might want to check out: Ars Marginal: So much of the arts and entertainment we get exposed to is by and for straight White guys*. We figured it’s time for us to talk about what we get out of it. Because, frankly, we’re tired of that shit. Ars Marginal flips the script and looks at movies, TV shows, comic books, and games from our point of view.
  • Context. Or, no you don’t get to apply your Internet niche knowledge to me doing my job. :>: yes, using a swastika in your gaming profile is going to get you banned, internet contrarian.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Women did not evolve against risk-taking and tech startups.

This is cross-posted at Restructure!

There is a common idea that women are underrepresented in tech startups because we are “nurturing and not risk-taking enough by nature”, an idea often proposed and upvoted in Hacker News discussions. Roy F. Baumeister, Professor of Psychology, also argues something similar in his defense of Lawrence Summers’ hypothesis that fewer women than men have high innate ability in science. Professor Baumeister argues that men evolved to take risks, and women evolved to play it safe, because we are allegedly descendants of risk-taking men and risk-averse women.

However, there are a few problems with this explanation of why women are underrepresented among tech entrepreneurs. One problem is that top venture capitalist John Doerr consciously and deliberately invests in tech startups run by white men over women and racial minorities, and even encourages other VCs to follow his lead. Even more, it is understood that this is “the way the venture-capital industry operates”. While other industries call this “stereotyping” or “profiling”, VCs call it “pattern recognition”. In other words, there is systemic discrimination in the tech industry based on gender, as well as race and age.

Another problem with the hypothesis of female risk-aversion is that outside of the tech industry, women have been launching new businesses at twice the rate of men for three decades:

The phenomenal growth of women-owned businesses has made headlines for three decades—women consistently have been launching new enterprises at twice the rate of men, and their growth rates of employment and revenue have outpaced the economy.

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Howto: Stop Worrying About Female Brain Hard-Wiring and Get Smarter

This Ask a Geek Feminist question is about stereotype threat:

What can I do when stereotype threat is playing games with my head?

To give an example, I once had to take an IQ test at school in seventh grade. One section of the test included rotating three-dimensional objects in your head. The test was designed so that each section starts easy and then gets progressively harder. It is supposed to get so hard that there comes a point where you can’t continue any longer and then the tester stops that section of the test. On that section of the test, I managed to hit a window on the score because I got to the very end, having correctly answered all the questions in the object rotation section. The tester, who did these tests for a living, was astonished and he said he had never seen anyone come close to getting all of them.

As an adult, I heard the stereotype that women cannot rotate three-dimensional objects in their head. I heard it many times. Since I started hearing that, I have lost my ability to do so. I’ve tried some rather basic tests on this skill and I can hardly do any of them.

What can one do about this sort of thing?

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