The “Women in STEM” movement is regarded as inherently good, promising to close both a “confidence gap” and a pay gap. Particular attention is drawn to the opportunity for employment in the “fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future.” Increasing the number of women in the STEM workforce has the added benefit of increasing the STEM workforce overall: No one, to my knowledge, is suggesting we close the gender imbalance by getting rid of any of the men.
This happy accident should give us pause: Is Women in STEM really about empowerment? History gives us examples — Rosie the Riveter, The Space Race — in which people, particularly women, were encouraged to join particular fields. Looking back, we know now that these movements were not about empowering people, but rather using them in service of the short-term interests of industry. Will history judge the current race to push women into STEM the same way?
Rosie the Riveter and the “We Can Do It” poster was part of a broader campaign launched by government and private companies to recruit and retain female workers during World War II. Bilge Yesil, Associate Professor of Media Culture at City University of New York, writes that “wartime propaganda idealized the image of the war worker woman and portrayed her as the strong, competent, courageous ‘unsung heroine of the home front.’” Historians James Kimble and Lester Olsen argue that the feminist, rather than pragmatic, interpretation of the “We Can Do It!” poster is an imposition of the present upon history: the original poster was “far from the feminist icon it has retroactively become.” In an article for The Atlantic, writer Lane Wallace unpacks “The Complex Legacy of Rosie the Riveter,” writing that “as soon as it didn’t suit their purposes anymore, the same people who told women they could do it … told them they couldn’t do it anymore.” The employment-oriented view of empowerment shared by the two movements should give us pause as to the feminist motivations of the “Women in STEM” movement and who its narrative of empowerment ultimately serves.
The influence of The Space Race on American education is also relevant, as an example of the way in which national interests influence students’ educational trajectories. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in October 1957, the U.S. federal government used National Science Foundation funds to overhaul public school curricula in science and math fields, with the goal of training scientists who would help the nation reach the moon before the USSR. Technological innovation now plays this role. Big Tech companies not only encourage lawmakers to support STEM education but also “donate” to the cause themselves. This use of private funds to influence public education is cause for concern and should also, once again, lead us to question the beneficiaries of the “Woman in STEM” sub-movement of the broader STEM push.
Meanwhile, American literacy isn’t doing too well, with 54% of Americans reading below sixth-grade level. In fact, California has the poorest literacy of any state. In the face of this problem, the shift away from the humanities in higher education seems a frivolous concern. The tension between STEM at the expense of the humanities is not about being able to appreciate Jane Austen or ponder Sartre. On a more fundamental level, reading is required to be able to gain knowledge, to follow complex arguments, to expand our horizons and to change our minds. It is crucial to the functioning of democracy.
We could use non-technological ways of thinking to see that any problem has multiple solutions. There are two ways to even the gender imbalance in STEM: Instead of solely encouraging women into STEM, we could also encourage more men to study the humanities. Similarly, we could envision non-technological solutions to problems created by technology. We could address misinformation and fake news not solely through algorithms but also by allocating resources to education to make people better readers and critical thinkers.
My point here is not that the solution is either/or. My point is that there are always multiple solutions to any problem and that we should always be skeptical when a solution is presented as self-evident — especially when it happens to benefit the powers-that-be. At Stanford, everyone is so focused on how to wield their immense privilege that they forget that they can also be a tool. I used to believe the “sell-outs” were evil masterminds. Now they seem more like pawns.
Everyone — gender aside — I invite you to take a class in the humanities. You might like it. You might feel empowered by it. You needn’t major in it. It won’t land you a high-paying job of the future. But what I want to get at here — and what I think the humanities can teach us, all of us — is the importance of questioning the stories we’ve been told. To my knowledge, this isn’t covered in a coding bootcamp.
Christina MacIntosh is a super senior from Brooklyn, majoring in English and minoring in Earth Systems. She enjoys distance running, backpacking in the Sierra and going down poetry rabbit holes online.