Opinion

Schaefer: The existence of a woman in a STEM field is a constant pursuit of activism

Posted 9/28/21

I got another rape threat in my email yesterday. Since I am a female tech founder, this happens every other week or so. I’m not even bothered by private emails from trolls anymore. It’s …

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Opinion

Schaefer: The existence of a woman in a STEM field is a constant pursuit of activism

Posted

I got another rape threat in my email yesterday. Since I am a female tech founder, this happens every other week or so. I’m not even bothered by private emails from trolls anymore. It’s the public comments on my company’s business profile that cause harm. I was kicked out of my coworking space recently because of those.

When the tech community gives more credibility to anonymous comments than to women with Ph.Ds in engineering and 30 years experience, the trolls win.

Women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) fields spend much of their careers battling discrimination, tokenism and harassment. According to the Pew Research Center, 78% of women in STEM say they have experienced gender-related discrimination.

The most common forms include earning less than a man doing the same job, having someone treat them as though they aren’t competent, facing repeated slights, receiving less support than a male counterpart, and sexual harassment. Women have double duty of analyzing how to react to discrimination and display competence on top of spending time on work duties.

Employers are often required to interview a “token woman,” whether or not they are seriously considering her for the position. If the woman does get the job, being the token woman doesn’t come with a role that would advance her career. Token women are often ignored and not included in meetings with senior leadership. They often have to bear the burden of work that does not contribute to advancement, such as sitting on interview panels for the sake of making their company look more diverse.

According to the Pew study, half of women in STEM say that sexual harassment is a problem in their office or professional associations. There have been well-publicized MeToo stories in Hollywood, but MeToo tech stories are being silenced or blamed on the women themselves, such as in GamerGate. Women in STEM are often the only woman in their organization and are targeted by harassers because they don’t have anyone in their corner.

Telling someone about being harassed or assaulted by colleagues makes women feel ashamed of their social position in the profession. If a woman is seeking a promotion, consulting contract, or venture funding, publicizing her role as a victim diminishes her reputation as a competent candidate.

Professional associates don’t want to listen because they don’t want to be associated with that kind of trainwreck. Most women can’t discuss harassment inside or outside their company without retaliation not only by their employer, but by future employers or clients who will also brand them as troublemakers.

Women fighting as teams of one at scattered employers and technology forums across the country cannot be effective activists on our own. We need help in our activism to change the cultural attitude toward women.

Refuse to be a guilty bystander. Don’t allow others to dismiss women when they talk about something they don’t think polite women should discuss. Make sure there are consequences when someone marginalizes, sexualizes or childizes women by calling it out when you witness it happening.

There are several online resources that can get you started.

The Australian Human Rights commission published a research paper outlining “Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace,” which describes how bystanders can address harassment.

The Center for American Progress published six steps for “How to Combat Sexual Harassment in the Workplace,” which states that bystanders need to embrace zero tolerance and gender equality as their core principles. Hollaback! (ihollaback.org) is an organization that provides free training online toward becoming a responsible bystander.

Editor's note: Lisa Schaefer, Ph.D. is the founder of ThinQ TV edutainment and teaches software engineering courses.

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