STEM Culture: My Opinion

In lieu of the usual Fangirl Friday post this week, I want to dip my toe into waters that I generally shy away from, waters that may be deemed controversial. Since I am a statistician by trade, and since I (obviously) love geeky things, I want to write today about sexism and culture in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), of which statistics is a branch.

While I don’t want any trolling or nasty rhetoric, I highly encourage readers to chime in with your individual perspectives and stories. Everything here is purely that for me – my own perspective and story, not intended at all to suggest extrapolation to society at large.

Growing up, I was always very good at math, and I loved it too. I was also highly creative and wanted to pursue a career in writing. (Spoiler alert if you are just now joining my blog, but I still have that career goal). Making a living with numbers is much more practical and lucrative though, so here I am. I spend my days programming and modelling data, and for the most part, I enjoy the content of my work. Coding is super fun! No, seriously – that wasn’t meant to sound sarcastic!

But. But. (There’s always a ‘but’). The predominant culture in highly quantitative fields is in my personal experience generally not inclusive of people who share my demographics. Note that I said ‘in general’ and ‘in my experience.’ In no way shape or form am I suggesting that there aren’t fabulous, inclusive, friendly, wonderfully open minded men and women I have worked with.

Requisite disclaimers out of the way, I want to talk about the ways in which I personally experience sexism in my industry. Again, this is just my personal experience. (Can you tell I’m trying to hedge my post again trolling, lol?).

In my experience, there are two main ways in which my line of work can sometimes feel unwelcoming or exclusive to me as a white female stats nerd (and a highly feminine, bubbly one at that).

One way is overt sexism from select individuals, which thankfully is not the norm. My first manager on a former statistics team was a middle aged Indian gentleman who referred to the men on my team by their surnames but called me either just my first name or as ‘the girl.’ About a month after joining the team, he pulled me aside and explicitly told me that I was not to speak in meetings unless spoken to. Yeah. You read that right. I don’t think any of the guys on the team were told that.

But the second way in which I at times feel like a foreigner in my own field is much more nebulous, as it relates to the standard culture of quantitative teams. Virtually every hiring manager I’ve either worked for or even interviewed with for a quantitative position was socially aloof at best, and downright cold at worst. If you’ve never had the pleasure of interviewing for a statistics job (or related field, I’m sure), here’s a run down of what I mean. They focus ONLY on technical questions in the interview process. The entire notion of hiring a candidate at least in part because of his or her charismatic personality or go-getter attitude is foreign to them. They don’t smile. They show little to no warmth or caring or friendliness. Their emails are curt, often with incomplete sentences and no bother for social niceties like “how is your day going.” They possibly don’t even bother to get your name right.

It’s the sort of work culture where you can damn well bet that no one will care when your birthday is, folks don’t socialize outside of work, and few folks self disclose even basic personal getting-to-know-you facts.

It’s the sort of work culture where you will rarely hear “Did you catch that game last night? What a save!” or “Aw, that photo of your puppy on your desk is adorable!”

It’s the sort of work culture where people don’t just randomly bring homemade cupcakes into the office just because.

It’s the sort of work culture where you will hear very little praise for a job well done. Rather, your only form of feedback is not receiving technical criticism.

I realize now that this post has really gone beyond sexism in STEM, because ultimately what I am talking about is the predominant cold, icy, clinical culture of statistics teams in my experience, which also (coincidentally or not) happen to be heavily dominated by men. The thing is, I do proudly embody the stereotype of a woman who loves to be friendly and nurturing. I do love baking just because. I was a bubbly cheerleader. That is who I am. And I am also a stats nerd (and just nerd in general!). So I find myself often feeling so uncomfortable and miserable in these workplaces where personality and friendliness are expected to take a back seat.

Also, whether it’s in my head or not, I don’t know, but I often wonder/worry about how I am perceived by higher ups who truly embody that cold culture. Are they able to see past my affinity for Lilly Pulitzer dresses and high ponytails, to see the stats nerd who loves her job just as much as the conservatively dressed man from China? Does my signature pink lipstick make them even subconsciously value me any less?

Dear Husband and I often joke that my professional life can at times feel like Legally Blonde in terms of being underestimated. And in some respects, I can see how someone might read this and think “who cares what others think? just be yourself!”

To a certain extent, I agree, which is why I continue to dress like a Lilly model and strut into work in four inch heels. I refuse to change who I am for the sake of a job. But, to a certain degree it really does matter what others at work think, because ultimately this is my livelihood, and rightly or wrongly, other people have a say in our salary and our tasks.

Finally, I guess ultimately what I want to say is that even if I could be 100% guaranteed that my salary is on par with others’, and that others’ esteem of me was not at all negatively influenced by my culture and personality, at the end of the day I still feel somewhat of an outsider simply because the cold clinical culture I was describing makes me absolutely miserable.

Is it really so much to ask to want a workplace where I can do statistical programming all day AND work with people who are bubbly and friendly and socially charming? Can’t I find a team where I can explore machine learning techniques AND exchange homemade cupcake recipes? Can’t quantitative prowess and diplomatic charm coexist in an environment?

Alas. I’m done with my soapbox for now.

Does any of this resonate with you? Do you ever feel like an outlier in  your workplace culture in whatever your industry is?

Until next time,

xoxo Charlotte

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7 comments

  1. I can feel things are cold and impersonal as a guy working in engineering. I work with a few women too and i consider them the same as anyone else. I cant believe these ancient attitudes still exist. Keep going with it yeah?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting Simon! My husband is an engineer too, and while he’s seen no evidence of blatantly antiquated thinking, the general culture of his team is very impersonal. I find it so interesting that certain fields tend to have certain workplace cultures. Not suggesting that’s a good or bad thing, just something interesting that I never considered growing up when choosing a career.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s ok it was good to read. The thing is that many engineers don’t have well developed inter personal skills. This i the case with guys generally, the lady engineers seem more social.
        But that manager, telling you not to make comment, if I thought that was happening to a fellow female colleague I like to think I would bring them up on that.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My last long-term job gave me kind of a weird, inverted bizarro-world experience in this. The billing office was predominantly women due largely to all the men having used it as a stepstone to higher positions while the women remaining either didn’t have any interest in those same positions or were (probably) bypassed in favor of the dudes. The ones who remained had some serious, internalized misogyny left over and really adhered to STEM and math stereotypes even when it went against their personalities, and viciously lashed out at any other woman who tried to step outside of that. I found myself on the receiving end of that several times as a dude who is more in touch with his feminine side than his masculine one most of the time; I tended to do a lot of baking and organizing events, I put on a much more extroverted front for clients to contrast everyone around me trying to stay very cold and clinical, I tended to flaunt a lot of goofy/flashy ties while the rest of the office took a very drab, conservative dress code to heart.

    I actually ended up getting into a very long, angry argument with two of the older women who worked there when I pointed out that every time they made fun of me or called me girly they weren’t actually insulting me, they were insulting themselves and all of their peers. I could not drive home that I took it as a compliment when they told me not to be “such a chick,” because I grew up around plenty of badass women who I’d be honored to be compared to. One of the driving forces behind me leaving that particular job was the raw misogyny I saw from an office where I was one of two dudes in a workforce of around 20 people.

    I really, really wish more people would understand that the end game of feminism is to completely do away with gender-coded roles, and that elevating women benefits dudes because it means that we can’t be attacked or cut down for liking something that has been traditionally associated with women; it’s not being told you can’t be a big burly stoic lumberjack so much as it is removing the risk of being mocked if you *don’t* want to be one.

    Like

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