I Am Not a Woman in STEM, but I Am an Academic.

There is a lot of pressure on young girls to be beautiful, attractive and desirable. This gets a lot of attention, whether it’s from ‘body-posi’ Instagram accounts or yet another celebrity claiming their surgery-perfected body was made by this detox tea that you can use too!!

This pressure is all too real and can become overwhelming and is no doubt linked to the burning fear in young girls and adult women alike that they will never be good enough. However, it is not the only pressure on women. Throughout history, and particularly literature, we often see women presented as damsels in distress. Inferior, barely complex, unintelligent characters designed to look pretty and do little. The damage this caused – and is indeed causing – is ingrained in years of patriarchal rule and the dominion of man over his female counterparts.

The movement now, is for women to be equal to men. It is for all genders, equal, in all ways. Part of this battle is to be seen as intellectually equal. And there certainly is reason to believe that women are making headway in this battle. In 2017, BBC News claimed that ‘the gender gap [was] at its widest ever point’ for students going to university. That same year, the year I finished my A Levels, the Guardian reported that ‘133,280 British women aged 18 had secured a university place, compared with 103,800 British men of this age’. Women in the UK are now given the same opportunity – the same chance – to get into a university as men, and many women are seizing it.

In spite of this, women are still being pitted against each other academically in a way that is simply not as common in men. The pressure to be a woman in STEM is enormous. There is so much done at a secondary school level to engage young women with the sciences and to persuade them that science is the best place for a woman, that to be a woman in academia is to be a woman in STEM.

As a high-achieving student in secondary school, this frequently crossed my mind. I was particularly good at Maths. In fact, I loved Maths (you could have used the term ‘mathlete’, and I wouldn’t have been mad about it). I loved how it just made sense and worked in a way that was so black and white. But there was a lot of pressure. Pressure to be the M in STEM. Pressure to go and get a BSc, rather than a BA.

I ended up doing a Philosophy degree. Not because I didn’t love Maths, but because Philosophy excited something in me that I didn’t find in Maths. I found passion. I found fire in what I was doing and what I was learning and that was the excitement I knew I would need to complete three years at university.

I am at a Russell Group university. This, for me, is particularly exciting. I went to a small sixth form in Cornwall, where not many people go to university at all, let alone a Russell Group. This was such an achievement and I was so thrilled to have earnt a place here. What I didn’t realise is that the pressure to be a woman in STEM had not left me when I left it.

On multiple occasions since I started university, I have been made to feel inferior because I do Philosophy. Philosophy may not sound like the hardest subject, and arguably it isn’t. But that doesn’t discredit either its importance or its difficulty. It is a subject of academia. It is the beginning of all knowledge. And yet I find myself being demeaned by people of all genders for not doing a science.

Why? Why is science the only type of subject worthy of merit, accolade and respect? Why is a subject in the arts so impossible to grasp as academic? There are many names I could list now, some of the greatest names of all time. Pythagoras – not just that guy who liked triangles in Maths, but fundamentally a philosopher. Karl Marx – maybe not to your taste but someone who revolutionised politics as we know them, a philosopher. Isaac Newton – famous physicist also known as a natural philosopher. Albert Einstein worked alongside Bertrand Russell to combine the work of science and philosophy to highlight the dangers of nuclear weapons. Some of the greatest minds of all time considered philosophy to be more than just another subject, but one to be recognised as important and to be taken seriously.

There is no need for anyone to suggest that we dismiss science. Science aids us and propels us forward in new ways. But Philosophy, and Arts and Humanities more generally, should not be dismissed either – they belong beside Science, doing the same job. Not as an inferior, but as an equal.

We should see the people who study the arts as equal to those who study the sciences. Namely, we should respect the women who study the arts in a way that is equal to the respect we have for women in STEM. The notion that an academic woman exists only in STEM is not only categorically wrong, but it is damaging for young women with passion.

Photo by Debby Hudson

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