Thursday, July 19, 2012

STEM and stigma

Around the 40th anniversary, the White House announced a commitment to increasing the presence of women in STEM fields.
This, of course, drew criticism (because the number of women receiving degrees is--overall--higher than men) and fear that the White House was working on imposing another one of those "Title IX quota systems."
I cannot speak to what potential Title IX regulations specific to STEM may or may not accomplish--because they do not exist. And, right now, I am far less concerned with getting X number of women into mechanical engineering. Because the numbers people pull out--about how women dominate the health care field, earn over three quarters of Masters degrees in education, and 82 percent of undergraduate degrees in Public Administration and Social Services--they end.
What do I mean? Well they only tell us the degrees people are selecting into and earning. One, we don't know how many people get jobs in these fields after receiving a degree, which is perhaps a secondary consideration of mine at the moment.
My larger concern is how selection into and retention within certain fields occurs--which is all about culture. Additionally, these issues have economic effects.
Yes, there are a lot of women in social services. Most of the positions within this field are considering caretaking ones--social worker, therapist, aid worker, counselor. Many are in the non-profit sector. Most are low-paying. There are many such people in the area I live in. Of all the people I know in these positions, one is a man. Why? Because, one, there is a stigma around men in caring professions. And two, they do not pay well. Again, a man's earnings are tied to dominant beliefs about masculinity--yes, even in our so-called post-feminist era.
Men in caring professions like social work or K-12 education are often more easily pushed toward administrative positions: center directors, principals, etc.
A similar stigma applies within the health professions. The difference is that, currently, earning potential in these fields is much higher. But I am not aware of a culture that exists among, for example, nurses that discourages men from getting and/or keeping positions. Often men are praised for doing "this kind of work." This is not the case in higher education (women may earn more PhDs but they are less likely to get tenure) or in STEM fields.
Increasing the number of women in these fields will not necessarily lead to a change in culture within or outside of them. The solution to the problem, as we are so fond of saying in women's studies, is NOT "add women and stir."