Dear Women in STEM: My promise to you

WARNING! THIS IS A WARNING! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

This post will contain foul language. Also, unless stated otherwise, photos posted here do not belong to me, they belong to Nicole Wolf (@joeel56 on Instagram). They have been used without permission, but used in a spirit where I hope their use is understood.

I follow a lot of accounts on social media of women in STEM. Female scientists, female technologists, female engineers, female mathematicians. I follow astrophysicists, coders, geneticists, civil engineers, architects, artists, chemists, all of them women.

It’s no accident either; one of the reasons I follow them is because they are women. My thinking has always been that, all too often, women in STEM find themselves being attacked by men who think that the fact they possess a penis makes them far superior, and while these women don’t need a man like me to defend their sensitivities, knowing that there are some decent men out there who will listen to what they have to say and engage appropriately with them and will respond to them as contemporaries must surely give them a boost and help them to feel they can continue to post their content in safety and in the knowledge that people are treating them as they wish to be treated.

Some of the accounts are run by women who, if I am candid and honest, are pretty damn cute. Like, “I wish I could meet you and I would like to date you but you’re totally out of my league and I would never be worthy of someone of your calibre” cute. Really good looking. And I follow these accounts because these women are good looking, but it too follows that logic – there will be men who will follow them and will attack them because they will see the physical characteristics of these women as the sole reason for their popularity and assume that they are using their femininity and their sexuality to attract viewers to their content and that these women aren’t “real X-ers” – real coders, real scientists, real whatever. And having guys like me following them, listening to what they have to say, taking what they have to say on board and treating them based on their skills rather than their “attributes” must surely boost their confidence and encourage them to post more content.

Plus, they’re cute. Let’s be honest here, I’m a single guy, I’m going to find attractive people attractive. I try and be respectful about that because I don’t follow these accounts to get a date, but I’m not going to pretend I don’t notice.

Anyway, that was all well and good. I follow these women, I support them, I treat them as my peers, my equals, aren’t I such a good guy. And I don’t even ask for acknowledgement of being such a good guy. I’m not one of those goat-humping douchenozzles who complains when his “goodness” isn’t acknowledged. I acknowledge it. That’s what matters.

And then a woman called Nicole posted a story on Instagram.

Nicole (@joeel56 on Instagram) - one of the women in STEM I follow
Nicole (@joeel56 on Instagram) – one of the women in STEM I follow

She is German. She is, as you can see, very pretty. She rides a motorbike. And she’s a coder.

A pretty good coder as well. She’s one of the people responsible for the 8mylez Shopware agency (website in German). Not a low-level intern there, she is one of the people who started the freaking thing! She is working with talented people in her field and works with them as her peers, her equals. She has a talent that people strive for. Her posts on one Instagram account talk about her life as a woman in STEM. There is the odd photo of her working on projects, but her content is more about her general life rather than deep dives into technologies or languages or concepts. To be honest, I quite enjoy seeing her content anyway. Seeing a woman in STEM just being a regular woman (who, by the way, rides a really hot motorcycle, in case I forgot to tell you) is really refreshing. She doesn’t need to do all of these tricks to get people involved. She doesn’t need all of these gimmicks. She just needs to post about her daily life, what she’s doing, what she’s working on, here she’s going on her latest jaunt, whatever.

So not too long ago, she posted this.

These are comments she has to deal with every day. And they got to her. They get to her. They probably make her question, to an extent, why she does what she does. Why she promotes herself as a woman in tech. Why she shares insights into her life, into her company, into her work. They made her feel that she wasn’t being respected as much as she originally thought.

I’m probably putting words into her mouth; she posted what she felt on her Stories as well (it can still be seen under her REALTALK highlights, at the time of writing this).

But you know what Mr Nice Guy here did? Mr “I love to support women in STEM”? Do you know what I did to show her my support?

Nothing.

I did jack shit. I sat and stayed quiet, not once even lending my support to her or sharing how I appreciated the work she would do on her feeds. She isn’t an inspiration to me – I have been coding for a while now – but she is a true talent in tech, in STEM, and she deserves to be treated as an equal. And I didn’t tell her that.

Now, there are things that really get to me about all of this. From a personal perspective, there was nothing stopping me from saying “Hey, just wanting to let you know that I dig your stuff. Keep doing what you do best. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. You’ll have many more supporters out there that care about you and what you do.” Nothing at all, and there’s no excuse for me not saying it. But more than that, it’s that Nicole isn’t the only woman to face these kind of comments. She isn’t the first, she won’t be the last, and it won’t just be from these penis-bearers.

Women in STEM have been marginalised for a long time. Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, all realms of the brain, of thought, of knowledge, of understanding, and in the minds of some, realms that should remain under the guardianship of men for reasons that I am yet to be able to fathom. It’s a concept that I find sickening. It’s complete and total horseshit. One of the other reasons I follow women in STEM is because they – like many men in the field – fucking know what the goddamn fuck they are fucking talking about. They’re not stupid. They know their shit. They have trained for years in their chosen fields. And those that aren’t, are documenting their journey as they train and learn. They’re sharing their mistakes, their triumphs, their achievements, their failures, experiences that I have, even as a man. There is nothing on Earth that says they should not have these experiences, and I do not understand why, from a human perspective, these women are discriminated against so much by men who think their penis grants them some kind of special abilities.

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.

Of all the coders I follow, I can guarantee that I know the least about coding. I like to think I know a lot, but let’s face it, I don’t know anywhere near enough to be called upon to be some kind of expert. Neither would Nicole, perhaps, but she and I know PHP, and I am certain she knows more than I do about it.

Do I care? No! Not in the slightest! If anything, I’m glad that someone does know more than I do, because it means I have someone I can turn to for free tech support. But more than that, I’m proud that the PHP community can have talents like her. I don’t feel emasculated by her prowess on the keyboard. What do I have to feel inadequate about? She’s not after my job. She may be my competitor, but she’s my peer. She’s my contemporary. Just for that reason alone, I should be boosting her up, not shutting her down.

I have long advocated for more women in STEM, and I’ve often been given the same kind of arguments to counter:

  • It should be about results, not gender.
  • This is just PC gone mad!
  • Why aren’t you supporting more men in STEM? You should be supporting EqUaL rIgHtS!

or some similar argument. They seem to believe that “more women” means “fewer men”. As a percentage, perhaps. But as an outcome, a final number? Why would I want fewer men? I want more people in STEM. More people means more ideas. It means more tests, more results, more knowledge, and a more intelligent society. I want to see more people from every background because they will have ideas and insights that I as a straight, cisgender white guy won’t. We need to have ideas coming from every corner of the world, every society, every tribe, every background, every faith, every nation, every gender identity, every sexuality, everywhere. Expanding our respective fields will not result in a negative experience for STEM. It will most definitely be a positive. These people are just as capable of giving solutions, of achieving outcomes, of researching, of theorising, of thinking, of planning, of epxperimenting as we white guys are. Perhaps more so than some of us.

There is no reason not to give them the chance to prove themselves.

And, if we do increase the number of women in STEM, what’s to say we can’t continue getting more men in STEM too? Even if it pushes the balance of power away from men, what’s to say we can’t still bring more men in as we bring in more women?

The truth of the matter is that these guys aren’t bothered about outcomes or equality or fairness or respect, because they only see that balance of power. As long as there are more men in the field, they are happy. Anything that could diminish the hold men have in their fields is seen as a bad thing by tjem, simply because it offends their own sensitivities. We need to pander to these penis-holders so we don’t hurt their feelings.

Bullshit. Their feelings need to be hurt.

These people will keep coming. These people will continue to use their energy to drive women out of the fields they have worked hard to be a part of. These people will continue to attack women for doing work that they have worked hard to complete. They will celebrate when women fail and hold it as a sign as to why all women should be removed from their field. To these people, women should be removed, banished, and the sanctity of their field should be cleansed of its demons. There will always be more comments like this. There will always be more penis-holders who will feel inadequate on the chance that a woman can do the job better than they can. To those, I say this:

If you are so concerned about how you will be seen when compared to a woman, maybe the problem isn’t the woman. Maybe the problem is YOU.

So, women in STEM, the women that I follow and support, I make this pledge to you.

I will continue to support you. I will cheer with you when you achieve, and I will comiserate with you when you fail. I be more vocal to call out discrimination where I see it. I will stand with you, shoulder to shoulder, as your peer, as a human being.

Not only will I do that, but I will hold your feet to the same flames that I hold others to. If you spout nonsense, I will call you out for it. If you discriminate against others, I will call you out for it. If you berate others for things that you wouldn’t berate your own for, simply beause they are not one of you, I will berate you for it.

You will have my support as a peer. With my support comes responsibilites to be a better participant in STEM. We don’t build a better STEM field by simply bringing more women in. We build a better STEM field by being better participants, and we do that by welcoming others in. That doesn’t mean we can’t bring in more women, but that alone doesn’t fix the issues in the male-dominated arenas. I will cheer you on, I will celebrate you and your efforts, but I won’t look away if you commit the same sins you call out in others.

You are my equal. That means I treat you the same, for better, and for worse.

And to all of the women out there who question whether they should delve deeper into their reserves and pull out the strength to continue in the face of adversity and whether they are good enough to be respected in their respective fields, I simply say this:

Yes. Yes, you are.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You may not now be the best of the best, but even they weren’t always that great. You don’t have to be the next Bill Gates or the next Steve Jobs or the next Nicole. Just be you. Post whatever you want. If that’s about your life, let it be about your life. If it’s about your career, so be it. If it’s about your pet tortoise, show off that critter. You don’t have to show off screen after screen of code to be a coder. You are entitled to have a life outside of your IDE.

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