What is STEMinism?

Written by: Kristen Myers, PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology

The term, “STEMinism,” has become popular in recent years. There are STEMinist blogs and t-shirts.  Universities have designed STEMinist programs, recruiting  “fearless and inquisitive young women,” promising to provide training that will help combat gender disparities in STEM.  All over the US, there are conferences and organizations designed to promote STEMinism. What is STEMinism? Basically, STEMinism is the application of feminism to STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), calling for gender (and often racial) equity in STEM. STEMinism developed over years of feminist problematization of the paucity of women in STEM fields, addressing their under-presentation and devaluation throughout the “leaky pipeline,” from early education, through higher education, and into STEM careers (Blickenstaff 2005). Most STEMinism is intersectional, recognizing that disparities are worse for girls and women of color and for other under-represented minorities (Bruning, et al 2015).  On the surface, STEMinism is an important force in undoing longstanding inequalities in STEM fields and beyond. As Fox et al. (2011) write, “Because science and engineering are powerful in society and because gender divisions persist within these fields, this means that gender stratification with science and engineering not only exemplifies, but also legitimizes and supports, the hierarchical relations of women and men in society at large” (591).

With the help of STEMinists, a great deal of energy and financial resources have gone into repairing the pipeline for women and scientists of color. Nevertheless, despite all of these efforts, women remain under-represented in STEM. NSF data show that the percentage of women and students of color working in STEM occupations changed very little over the years. Feminist strategies for diversifying STEM have brought awareness to the problem, but they have not changed the fields themselves. Why not?

Despite its empowering and transformative mission, STEMinism as it is currently conceptualized is not a panacea for structural inequalities in STEM fields. As my colleagues, Courtney Gallaher and Shannon McCarragher, and I have argued (2019), STEMinism’s contemporary individualistic approach will not fix STEM. STEMinism focuses on training women in science to advocate for themselves and to learn how to succeed within the meritocratic system of STEM. In other words, STEMinism takes the existing system for granted. STEMinism does not problematize entrenched hierarchies themselves, nor does it give people the tools with which to combat hierarchical forces when they encounter them. In our study of 45 STEM majors, we found that most subjects internalized blame for structural obstacles when they encountered them. Subjects focused on individualized solutions to structural problems, such as adjusting their personal attitudes and goals. They did not problematize the obstacles themselves as something that their academic programs, their university, or their fields should address. Many practiced passive coping responses to sexism (such as avoidance or disengagement) rather than proactive responses (such as confronting sexism or seeking support). Most had a nascent but under-developed critical consciousness with few concrete strategies for addressing inequalities.

Thus, STEMinism is limited because it places the onus on the individual student or scientist to succeed in STEM fields rather than interrogating and removing structural barriers to success. While STEMinism has opened doors to STEM majors and recruited more young women into STEM fields, it has not provided them with an understanding of the subtle mechanisms that can hinder their success. STEMinism firmly supports individualist notions of meritocracy, celebrated in STEM disciplines (Cech & Blair-Loy, 2010; Seron, et al 2018). STEMinism’s individualist focus masks the ways in which old fashioned sexism and unconscious bias persist and operate. As a result, STEMinism promotes empowerment without a power analysis. How can we change the system, instead of the individual?  How do we do STEMinism better?