I’m not sure if I count as a woman in STEM. Well, I’m not even sure if I count as a woman and how much does a woman’s brain really count anywhere anyway? STEMinism? I’m still pondering my feminism. But the Bros never stop talking. Let’s see.
Here’s what AI tells me about STEMinism:
STEMinism is a term that combines STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) with feminism. It refers to the movement and advocacy that focuses on empowering and promoting women in these fields, as well as addressing the gender disparities and biases that exist within them. STEMinism aims to challenge stereotypes, encourage girls and women to pursue STEM careers, and create more inclusive and equitable environments within these disciplines. It recognizes the importance of diverse perspectives and experiences in advancing scientific progress and innovation. Bridging the gender gap in STEM is not only about providing equal opportunities but also about fostering an environment where everyone can thrive and contribute to the advancement of knowledge and technology.
I did suffer through science education for years after school (and it was suffering because I would have loved to study psychology and fine arts instead). But I was once a part of the world of mathematics which is the M in STEM. I did work at an elite analytics department of a multinational company aided by that background. Market research isn’t as science-y as engineering but well, I taught some of those Engineer Bros maths. Even before that, in my first internship, I organised a database for my own ease of use. My manager noticed it and showed it to her seniors and that was the model they adopted for the finale of that project. Heh, I just remembered that this manager was an engineer. She was also a woman and so was her boss who approved my plan. The head of my department of mathematics was also a woman. Think I might just have lucked out for the first decade and half of my life?
T for Terrible STEM
I have spent nearly three decades exploring the biggest technology the world has seen – the internet. This began long before my peers, genius techies or not, male or otherwise did. I walked wide-eyed into the 90s world of talking to strangers in other continents in chatrooms as an adolescent. I built the first online community for my school, coaxing people to set up email addresses. I sent out an episodic newsletter on email without realising that would become a pandemic fad 20 years later. I was figuring out how to apply new technology to public expression in the early 2000s
Journalists and paper-format authors dismissed what I was doing as ‘not real writing’. Programmers condescended to me. I walked alone in the gap between the words-people and the technology men. I pondered questions of ownership, ethics and identity in the shifting world of internet technology. Isn’t that an integral aspect of considering scientific progress – asking how it will impact your world, how you will survive it and what it will make of you? Just because it’s human, does it make it less relevant to technology?
I’ve also been fighting glass ceilings and gender stereotypes for that long. What to do? My gender enters these worlds before I do. And the Bros are up in arms.
The Roots Of My STEMinism
Never mind that I chose the first merit seat in my college, I was still the reason raja betas who paid their way in ‘lost their jobs’. A subject like Operations Management was child’s play to me. After you’ve spent hours pondering the geometry of seven dimensions or imagining a universe of imaginary numbers, sizing up a machine’s efficiency does feel pretty rudimentary. But my professor only looked at my gender when he entered the class and directed his first words at me.
“Why are you here? You should be at home learning to make rotis.”
And the Engineer Bros laughed. That was my first taste of the brodom that surrounds scientific subjects and fields. In the two years to come, Prof. Bro (himself a Pedigreed Engineer) would ridicule me each time I raised my hand for a question. He was rumoured to have snapped a woman’s bra strap in class so my female classmates hid as best they could when he was holding forth. And the Engineer Bros lapped it, spurring him on.
In the final semester, Prof. Bro announced that the two biggest projects were only for engineers ‘as they have a lot of maths’, the implication being that the prestige projects could only be done by engineers and real engineers were only men. If I learned nothing else in b-school, I did learn how to fight the Bros by being a woman. I negotiated a deal with one of the engineers. Fanboi Bro had signed up for the project hoping for a reference letter from this professor but was dreading the work involved. His trajectory had been dismal, echoing his undergraduate course checkered with arrears and failures. He was as the joke ran, ‘a visiting student’ (who showed up even less frequently than the visiting faculty). Fanboi Bro looked at me curiously when I offered to exchange with him. The project I had was an easy A since as far as he was concerned behavioural dynamics was ‘stuff women do’ and there were three other women in my group. Then he shrugged.
“Just one condition,” I said, “You tell the professor you found someone to palm it off to. Tell him it was your idea.”
The Bros must have had a good laugh that evening at the stupid woman they’d fooled. I was silent at the group’s first project meeting as Leader Bro looked at me suspiciously.
“Why are you doing this?”
I told him that was the price if he wanted my marketing notes. I promised to be quiet and let them take charge. I spent the next two weeks busy on other projects. They never called another meeting. The day before the final presentation, Leader Bro ordered me to send him the presentation.
“I am not coming to college tomorrow,” I told him sweetly.
“But you’ll fail!”
“No, I won’t,” I replied and he was silent. He was just realising that I had a strong track record and didn’t need to pick up any extra marks with this project to pass. Leader Bro swore, threatened, yelled and finally said,
“What will we do?”
I replied, “You’re engineers. Figure it out.” before hanging up.
I showed up the next day, ten minutes late. The other engineer group was presenting but the class turned in their seats to see who had dared show up late for this professor’s final presentation. Prof. Bro made eye contact and ignored me. Then one of his fanbois went to whisper in his ear. Leader Bro. Then he turned and waved me in. Prof. Bro steadfastly ignored me as I walked in, smiled at the engineers presenting and took my seat right in the first row. Next to the professor and in the very same seat where he had first seen me two years earlier and humiliated me.
Because I was up in the front, the Group Bros couldn’t talk to me. I watched them sweat through their formal shirts, trying to glean if I had a report hidden in my handbag. An hour later, the professor reluctantly called out the final group – ours. The Group Bros ambled to the front of the class shamefaced. I stood up, put in a disk into the computer calling up a presentation and delivered the entire report alone. I ended with the final slide, stepping back to say, “This was presented by…” and let Leader Bro read out our names. Mine at the bottom. Of course, the project aced that test. Prof. Bro could not have rejected it without failing his Fan Bro brigade. But we all knew who won that round.
“On the internet, you can be anyone you want to be”
Rather naively, I keep supposing that the world outside my classroom of raja betas is different. Vainly, I hope that things have changed since 2003. I’ve had my brief stints in companies that hired me for my brain. I even met some men who claimed that they enjoyed strong women. But even then, they would talk down to me, mock my work, sympathise with the trolls and flash paychecks in my face. We all know the gender wage gap is a glaring reality in India even today. Even in top MNCs. Even in pedigreed, results-first circles. Brodom speaks louder than my abilities.
I chose the name IdeaSmith because it was gender-neutral. I was anonymous for many years because I knew I’d never be able to raise my voice over the silencing of my gender. Even so, without a single picture of me, without any identifying characters about my sexuality, my steady output of poetry, cityscapes, and social commentary was dismissed by Internet Bros as ‘attention only because you’re a woman’.
Nearly two decades later, the experience of being an outsider is more familiar to me than anything else. I have been the only personal blogger in a room full of Tech Blogger Bros thus making my writing less serious somehow.
I’ve been a girl in a particular aisle at bookshops and Comic Bros tell me my tastes don’t count. My ex was a Gamer Bro who scoffed at my love of board games and sneered when I told him that all games are mathematics (Gamergate sounds right up his nasty alley). In my past decade of work as a content professional, Science Bros have mansplained everything from programming & web design to tech processes & cryptocurrency to me. And when I seem to understand a little too quickly, some of them say, “You arts people and all don’t understand this no, so…”. I LOVE having a degree in mathematics right then.
Here’s the thing. It’s not news to me anymore that the fields of STEM have nothing to do with scientific thought. There’s nothing logical about ignoring 50% of the population when considering solutions for humanity. That’s garbage data and faulty assumptions to start with. Restricting women because men cause trouble is not a scientific solution. Imagine what evolution would have looked like if we had decided that the way to deal with hunger was to cut away people’s stomachs? The male ego is not a good enough reason to impede scientific progress. Masculine insecurity is not a good excuse to deny humanity all the perspectives that the other genders bring to the table. The Bros are the death of all things scientific or pure.
The S of STEM isn’t Safety
Here’s another example. As a woman on the internet, the majority of my incoming online communication is negative. What is the solution always offered up? BLOCK. What does this do? It keeps me from seeing the offending person’s activities. It doesn’t actually keep them from seeing my activities. This is a solution for someone whose worst-case scenario of ‘negative’ is unpleasant. The problem it solves is irritation.
But I am not a cis man. My problem is a vastly different one. Negative communication to me is a threat of rape, violence, doxxing, blackmail, harassment. Does it help me to know less about the people who threaten me? Quite the contrary. Knowing where my dangers lie helps me navigate safely. Even my best-case scenario of negative is worse than unpleasant (I don’t have the luxury of turning up my nose at bad smells or grotesque views if they are the safer options for me). My problem is not irritation, it is danger. People who design and run these spaces don’t or won’t recognise this fundamental difference. It changes the entire experience of living, of being human for them and for the rest of us.
My most recent source of anxiety has been the bro dom of a tech-powered community that I’ve been involved in, much longer than any of the bros in charge. It started with them inviting me in. At the very first event, the Bro-in-charge put me in my place by telling me I was worth nothing. I swallowed my rage and retaliated with humour in public. My smile says don’t mess with me.
Years later, they invited me in again, telling me the role they had in mind for me. No thank you, I said. I’m done being Jhansi ki Rani, crusading for all women. I’m just one person. Take me as I am. Still, I found myself in a room full of 16 men, my saree advertising my token woman status. Led by Prime Bros 1 & 2, flanked by a couple of lesser Bros, a captive audience of several Newbie Bros and a late arrival rockstar Visiting Bro. The conversation went the way of safe spaces. I pushed back on one of Prime Bro ideas – QR codes of personal contact information printed on ID cards hanging on lanyards. That’s waving every kind of red flag to me. We argued back and forth, the Prime Bros & I while lesser Bros whispered among themselves. Visiting Bro punctuated the arguments by repeating my exact words five minutes after I’d uttered them. And each time, the bro dom would uniformly turn to him and say, “Oh yes, we should consider that! Great point!” Ah, good old-school mansplaining where a man repeats the same thing a woman has just said and takes the credit for it. It ended with Prime Bro 2 shot me this volley.
“Those problems are just specific to you. We can’t cater to your requirements.
We have to think about what the majority wants.”
And zing. The Bros put me right in my place. Just a woman in a space where I didn’t belong.
Amusingly the book that I picked up to read that weekend turned out to be something called STEMist fiction. The protagonist is a neurologist battling the challenges of technology as well as the bros who gatekeep engineering. The pointless gendering of different sciences weighs on her heavier than the challenges of neural pathways and brain cells. The book is rife with humourous descriptions of Bro gatekeeping. WurstFestTM. Meatwave. Displosion in the Testosteoven. A Brodeo. A Cockcluster which is an academic meeting with only one woman in the room. And my absolute favourite!
“In CockclusterTM or WurstFestTM situations, having a man vouch for you will help you be taken seriously – the better-regarded the man, the higher his Sausage ReferencingTM power.”– ‘Love on the Brain’ by Ali Hazelwood
As this STEM-adjacent woman will testify, humour is the only way to beat the Bros!
True, the male protagonist is a little too Mr.Darcy at this point. But after centuries of stereotyping female characters, I’m okay with the male character being a bit cardboard now. These are stories about women, after all. I did find Bee’s assumptions about him and their ongoing relationship a bit too blinkered. But I’ve been guilty of that myself. I think inside our heads, a lot of women are. Even strong women. Even sciencey women. There’s enough in the world to make us constantly doubt ourselves. Women in the worlds of academia, especially STEM deal with even more.
Geekdom rose in the 80s and 90s typically imagined as white males who were good at maths & science, enjoyed video games, board games and comics. Computers & the internet brought them the dollars and Hollywood cashed in with the commodification of geek culture as cool. So those males grew up to be illustrious academics, tech whizzes, rich startup founders, and cutting-edge engineers but they didn’t bother catching up on that progress when it came to emotions or other genders (and races). These circles are notoriously even worse on women than other social/professional worlds.
So at this point, the idea of a man in a STEM field who values a woman’s intellect, calls out his bros for mansplaining and other harassment is a big deal. Almost a fantasy. I say, bring on all the Princes Charming until reality actually treats us as human (even if never queens).
I’m definitely up for another book and I’m picking ‘The Love Hypothesis’. But the reviews of this book suggest that it’s a poor imitation of the same so I’ll probably read that after a few more serious books. Because smart women have to do work before we get to snack on fantasy men in books.
View all my reviews
If like me, you are looking for some respite and literary fun in the battle against the Bros, here are my comfort reads:
– Fallout by Gwenda Bond to outwit the Internet Bros
– Level Up by Cathy Yardley that beats the Gamer Bros
– On The Come Up by Angie Thomas to school the Hiphop Bros
– The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon that outshines the Media Bros
– The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams to defeat the Sports Bros
– Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Jaswal Kaur that outrages the Desi Bros