September 29, 2020

CHEN | Reversing the ‘Woman in STEM’ Card

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Sometime last week, I stumbled across a LinkedIn post titled “Boy + General category = no future.” Attached was a first-person-account of the tech industry. A male candidate and a female candidate had taken a coding challenge for a Google Internship. The former scored 200/200 and the latter — the female — scored 5/200. The female was selected. The rant went on: “I saw 100s of posts on LinkedIn where only girls have been shortlisted for further interviews … So it becomes clearly evident that they have only selected girls, and many deserving (merit-based) guys were rejected. Has Google forgotten to select people based on skill and merit? Is sex the only criteria they look for these days?”

Scrolling down, there were hundreds of supporting comments, hoping that this “discrimination” would end soon, that there should only be emphasis on merit and coding skill for a software engineering internship. Companies shouldn’t be “wasting men’s time” with interviews that they will absolutely never pass because the world is an awful place.

There were a couple perspectives pushing back in the comment section, bringing in arguments of workplace diversity and underrepresentation, but they were quickly batted down. Needless to say, I was fuming.

Growing up, my entire family (excluding my mom) studied engineering. For Christmas, I would get a healthy mix of Legos and books about rainbow fairies. When it became time to choose a major for college, STEM was not at all off limits. Why would it be?

But thinking back again, I grew up watching Tony Stark build his own Iron Man suit and Phineas and Ferb come up with new inventions every day of their endless summer. In sophomore year, when I revealed to someone that I was running for Science National Honor Society officer, they stared and asked me if I was smart enough to run. When I came to Cornell, I became more conscious of being the only girl in a math discussion group, overthinking each time I was interrupted or brushed off.

Girls are taught from a young age that men occupy the hall of technological advancements. Female role models in tech, while they exist, are sparse and better known as special cases. Even looking at our own engineering quad, there is an embarrassingly tiny proportion of women professors teaching STEM subjects. Our engineering admissions office boasts of having a majority of women in the College of Engineering, but does not address how there is a significantly higher rate of women transferring out of engineering over men. While the resources are indeed present — there are no obviously segregated programs or institutions anymore —you cannot tell a woman to just harvest those resources and rise to the positions that men have occupied for decades when their environment has told them otherwise for their entire lives.

And even with the seminars and the conferences and the scholarships, the uphill climb never stops. A girl grows up seeing only boys fiddling with science kits and labs on TV. She gets involved in a Girls Who Code program and, through the support of undergraduate role models, decides to major in computer science in university. But there, microaggressions in the academic setting (“You don’t look like an engineer”) and imposter syndrome are quick to bat down her confidence. She perseveres, participating in the Grace Hopper Conference, the world’s largest gathering of women in computing, landing an internship after passing a series of interviews and finally earning a full time return offer for an entry-level software engineer. After settling in, others tell her that her offer was only the product of a quota, the need to appear more diverse in the workplace. It becomes tougher and tougher to rise through the ranks. Gender ratios in universities are improving, but executive boards of large companies look almost as white and as male as they have ever been.

Many (e.g. LinkedIn post supporters) believe that tech companies should just give girls resources throughout high school and college, conferences to go to and workshops to attend and seminars and programs to instill interest so that they can ‘earn the job offers on their own and not just because of their gender.’ But in our world today, there is nowhere you can escape to or earn your way into that will be free of the everyday discrimination and microaggressions that women and those in underrepresented minorities experience.

Give women a real chance in academics and in the workplace. Not a half-hearted chance, but one with the intention of including their ideas and giving them a place in discussions. No skeptical side-eyes as to how they ended up in the same place that you are. The uphill battle does not stop. Withdrawing resources after the job offers are accepted is the same as pulling the ground we take for granted out from under our feet as soon as we get promoted.

As companies attempt to open up more opportunities for women and other underrepresented minorities, there will always be backlash, especially in tech. I hope that men and other groups who do not identify as these smaller demographics can see themselves as allies and understand that many factors can lead to a job offer, not just a single coding assessment.

And to the people who wrote the LinkedIn post that I stumbled upon: You say you are for workplace diversity, but are skeptical of all the women around you where you work. You doubt if they deserve to be in the same place and position that you are in. You call this ‘discrimination’ against you, but take for granted how much more ordinary it is for you to announce that you want to become an engineer. No one seems to have doubted you and where you are, so why do the same to someone else?

Jonna Chen is a sophomore in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at jc2627@cornell.edu. jonna.write() runs every other Wednesday this semester.