So why am I not in STEM?

Over at Wandering Scientist, Cloud posted a lovely rant about efforts to make STEM more attractive to women. The idea that somehow science, technology, engineering, and math careers need to be made more pink for fragile females to enjoy, or that such careers should be more family-friendly because only women need that, is sexist in its own right. After recounting various absurd insults she’s lived through, Cloud notes that the way to make STEM more female-friendly is for a number of the men within it to stop being jerks (she uses more colorful language).

To which I say — yes! Thought STEM doesn’t have a lock on such behavior. Ask me sometime about journalism conferences featuring panels of men talking about great writers we should be reading who are, coincidentally, all men.

But anyway, her post got me thinking, because the issue of women going into STEM is a wee bit personal to me. I don’t feel guilt about much. Certainly not working, or ignoring emails I don’t want to answer. But I do occasionally feel a bit of STEM guilt.

I would have made a good scientist or mathematician. I was quite accelerated in math during school. I scored a perfect 800 on the math section of the SAT in 8th grade as part of the Midwest Talent Search. You don’t need a special award for the top-scoring girl in that case. I won our local MathCounts competition two years in a row. I took AP Chemistry and AP Biology simultaneously at the Indiana Academy and got a 5 on both exams. We were graded on a curve, so you had to be at least a standard deviation above the average in both classes at this selective school to get an A and I did that.

In other words, I was just the sort of girl people talk about encouraging to go into STEM fields. Or heck, social sciences. In college I took and loved economics. Many semesters of it. That would have been a reasonable choice too. And you know what? Tons of people did encourage me. Men, women, etc.

But there are two things going on. First, I have an older brother. He was and is much, much more into math than me. If I was winning local competitions, he was winning state and national ones. He was on the US Math Olympiad teams multiple years. The math department at Duke, where he went for undergrad, “retired” his math number (4/3!) after multiple years of Putnam competition prowess, and he earned his PhD in math at Princeton.

It’s not so much that the “math genius” slot in the family was already taken (there may be some element of that, though my little brother elected to go into computer science, which is highly mathematical). It’s this second complication: I could see how much he enjoyed math. It was what he wanted to do with his spare time, which is at least part of the reason he wound up excelling at it. When you spend lots of time on something, when you play around with it for fun, you get better and better at it, magnifying whatever natural inclinations you may have had.

I had natural inclinations, but I did not spend those same hours and hours exploring math. I liked it, and liked science, and liked the praise that came from great performance. But you know what I was doing with my spare time?

Writing stories. Lots and lots of stories. That’s what I did and do find fun.

The truth is, a life is lived in hours, and I believe in being happy in how you spend your hours. I love writing about science and math, and those of you who’ve read 168 Hours know that there are quite a few scientists profiled. That came out of a gig for Scientific American profiling such people. I like to be the writer who knows to change an editing error in a piece that had someone comparing the different infinities, smallest to largest. There is no largest infinity. I recognize that I am happier writing about people’s research than doing the research. I also enjoy writing about a variety of different things. Non-fiction. Fiction. That is what I want to spend my hours doing.

I do have some guilt over this sometimes. Partly it’s that many of the bloggers I enjoy reading are women in math, science, or social science (e.g. Wandering Scientist, Grumpy Rumblings, The SHU Box, Ana Begins, and others). I’m also spending less time right now writing about meaty non-fiction stuff that uses my brain than I should be, though that’s my fault. I’ve elected to throw myself into novel writing these last few months and it’s all-consuming. All the STEM talk also sometimes triggers feelings that writing isn’t serious, because anyone can theoretically do it, whereas STEM seems “hard.” And there’s this: have I let down the sisterhood by going into a field that has always had plenty of women in it, when I could have potentially helped break barriers in something that doesn’t?

But ultimately, we all have to live our own lives. STEM may need more women, but that doesn’t mean it needs me. Not because of any inherent flaws in it, or even the existence of sexist jerks. It is more because there are some things I love more, and I think I have a lot to offer the world doing what I do now, too.

So what do you think — should I feel guilty?



34 Responses to So why am I not in STEM?


  1. Ana says:

    Absolutely not (but you knew that right?) You don’t need to make yourself a martyr to the cause of “Women in STEM” if it doesn’t make you happy! Anyways, I don’t know if medicine/biomedical science qualifies exactly as “STEM”—and if so, there is certainly no shortage of women in those fields.

    • Laura says:

      @Ana- I think biomedical science research counts as STEM. But yes, it’s funny, put the pre-fix “bio” in front of anything, and you wind up with a higher percentage of women. Why is that? Biostatistics gets more than statistics.

      • oldmdgirl says:

        I don’t think medicine counts as a STEM field. Medicine is a trade. It requires inordinate amounts of memorization and (if you’re a surgeon) technical proficiency. This is not to say that doctors are stupid, or that being good at math is useless for doctors, but medicine as practiced by most private practice doctors is not “science.”

        • Ana says:

          Definitely medicine isn’t included, but even the kind of science that you and I do isn’t considering for the “science” part of STEM. My understanding is that it is specific to physics/chemistry/computational science/mathematics/engineering (i.e. traditionally and likely still male-dominated fields)

          • It depends on who you’re talking to what the actual definition is. NSF, for example, considers psychology to be STEM. NSF does not consider Medicine to be STEM, but it does consider Biomedical Science to be STEM. (And an economist in the economics department is STEM, but one in the business school is not STEM.)
            *
            But not everybody uses NSF’s definition.

          • oldmdgirl says:

            I don’t know whether the “science” I do is included or not. It’s definitely not the same as physics, engineering, or computer science, but I do use statistics a lot.

          • Cloud says:

            I have always thought biology and biomedical research are standard STEM fields. I agree, medical doctors not participating in research are not generally included in STEM fields, although you need to learn a lot of science to go to med school.
            *********
            FWIW, my PhD work involved biology, physics, and chemistry- all three have their challenges as sciences. None is easier than the others. Most of the trash talking you hear about one or another field being “easy” or “not really science” is just friendly trash talk, although the closer you get to pure math, the more you come across people who really do think their field is “purest” or “best” or whatever other BS. I think the best way to handle those people is to pity their inability to appreciate explanations of our natural world at different scales.

          • Astra says:

            Yep, as Cloud said, it’s friendly trash talk. As an astrophysicist, I would joke that biology is a STEM field unless you are in a physical sciences field.

          • Ana says:

            I have no idea why I put quotes around science…I was trying to emphasize it, but it ended up looking belittling. What I meant was SCIENCE!!! (as opposed to clinical medicine…the scientist part of physician-scientist)

  2. You obviously know the answer is, “no”. I dislike “letting down the sisterhood” questions. (In fact, I see them as click-bait…) Women get enough guilt with the “damned if you do” part as it is.
    *
    Apparently you’re not the marginal woman that STEM would retain if it weren’t sexist.
    *
    I have to admit that part of the reason I’m not a writer is because I craved employment security and income potential. Not insane security or potential, but enough to boost me into not having to worry about money, preferably something to kick me into upper-middle-class. I didn’t want to scramble. I suspect my sister made her choices in a similar manner. My children will not have those constraints.
    *
    As an expert, though, I occasionally write op-eds and policy briefs. I have to get pretty bored before I start on fiction. There are a lot of excellent fiction writers in the world– they don’t need me.

    • Laura says:

      @NicoleandMaggie – I just went to my first board meeting for the Princeton University Press Club. Lots of people who were excellent writers and reporters (one in particular I thought would have a first Pulitzer by 25) are in other fields. I’m sure they like their other fields, and I’m sure money is part of it too. So maybe that’s a subject for another post. How writing can be reasonably lucrative!

      • It’s not just the money, it’s also the stability. There’s a reason a lot of famous novelists started off as lawyers!
        *
        Lots of people are well-off artists and novelists as well. And lots of people are not so well-off.. on average, according to the BLS, they make a little more than I would have thought and are more likely to be employed than I would have thought. But not anything like a field where the demand and supply meet at a higher point on the P/Q axis.
        *
        Jim C Hines had an interesting post recently about his income that touched on why he keeps his day-job even though he’s now making a reasonable amount from his writing. http://www.jimchines.com/2014/01/2013-writing-income/
        *
        One of my grad school friends has noted that she knows a lot of couples in which one member has a steady dayjob and the other half has a high-risk high-reward creative occupation. That makes a lot of sense.

        • … and now it’s time for my first brief stint as Stand Up Comedian/ Educator for the semester. My goal is to make them both laugh and cry (and learn a little too) sometime in the next hour and 15 min.

  3. Chelsea says:

    I actually was somewhat in the same boat as you in that I was interested in and pretty good at science and math as a kid but loved writing. My parents steered me toward journalism (and I actually have a BS in journalism), but about 1/2 way through my undergrad, I realized I wanted/ needed a clearer career path (and to make more $$$ than a starting journalism salary) so I did an MS in statistics. My reasoning was that what I loved about journalism was that it would allow me to learn about and think critically about many different subjects (although I’ve remained most interested in biological science and medicine). The same is true with a career as a statistician, except you do it in a slightly different way. On a day to day basis, I do much more reading, writing, layout of tables and figures, and critical thinking (how should we design this experiment, etc.?) than I do math. In a weird way, my journalism background has really helped me – especially in grant writing – because most people in my field don’t enjoy or particularly care about writing.

    To answer your actual question, of course not. We need more strong females in all career paths. I HATE the insinuation (and I got it from my all engineer family all the time) that STEM = smart and everything else = dumb. However, I will say that there are fewer clear career paths for smart people (women included) who are not interested in doing STEM. If you like computer science, you get a job at Google. What if you really love Japanese? Not so easy.

    • Laura says:

      @Chelsea – yes, I hate the insinuation that humanities are for people who can’t do math/science. The issue is that, until I got to college, often this did wind up being the case that humanities classes were much easier than math/science, and the kids who were really smart were the ones who were into math/science. At Princeton, though, I started to meet people who were so insightful into questions of philosophy, literary analysis, etc. It’s not that they couldn’t do math. Their extreme talents just lay in other areas. It was a fascinating thing to discover.

  4. My relationship with STEM started out strong, and took a downhill slide before I was thinking about college majors. I did MathCounts in eighth grade and scored well at state, was the top student in geometry, but then had a teacher who just didn’t work for me for Algebra II and precalculus (the same teacher for both). By the time I got to calculus, I was just barely scraping by and was in no way considering anything math-based as a career.

    But, no, of course you shouldn’t feel guilty. Our decisions have to be based on what is right for us and our family, not on the impact we have on nationwide statistics. :)

  5. Shauna says:

    A slight tangent, but the story of your brother exceling at Math reminded me of this fascinating NPR report on the differences between siblings: http://www.npr.org/2010/11/18/131424595/siblings-share-genes-but-rarely-personalities It’s been over 3 years since I listened to this report but the thought that families are “comparison machines” has stuck with me and has certainly influenced how I parent.
    Even if your brother did have an influence on you not going into a STEM career, I think you made a wise decision being a writer. I gather that you are happy being a writer and are obviously very good at it. Even if you would have done well in a STEM career – an unhappy woman in that career does not help the cause.

  6. very interesting post. like ana and OMDG above, i do not consider my current job to really fit the STEM description. i do a lot of ‘logic’ work, and also a TON of work that requires good communication and writing skills (pt notes!). despite good math test scores (though i did not achieve my 800 in middle school!!) i actually am pretty comfortable owning up to the fact that i am NOT particularly excited about doing true hard science. i enjoy reading studies and someday i would like to get into some exciting clinical research projects, but i more would enjoy the creative process (design) and would outsource all of the stats (ie, math . . .) to others who actually enjoy that part and are trained in it.

    also: my favorite childhood activity was also writing stories :)

    • oldmdgirl says:

      I was actually thinking the skill set involved in being a doctor yesterday. It’s not just that you have to keep huge amounts of information in your head at the same time, it’s how you synthesize information and put together a story about a patient to arrive at a diagnosis. It’s like detective work, but it’s also story telling.

  7. Cloud says:

    Hell, no, you shouldn’t feel guilty. Just like women who get STEM degrees and decide to leave shouldn’t feel guilty. Apply my standard test for whether I should feel guilty or if the guilt I *am* feeling is part of the patriarchal BS: would a man in this situation feel guilty? In most cases (short of illegal/immoral acts), the answer is no.
    I think the fact that you are strong in math and science but also love to write is part of your strength as a writer- it means you can tackle topics that maybe writers without the strong match background wouldn’t tackle.

  8. Zenmoo says:

    I’m the opposite really. I went through MS/HS with much better grades and results in English & humanities subjects than math & science. Straight out – they were easier and (in my opinion) more interesting. I had grand plans to write books and work as a journalist. Luckily, I had some very good science teachers who pushed me to achieve more in this area – so that when I got to university and decided actually, maybe I’d rather do a science course, I could.

    And so, much to everyone’s surprise – I ended up with an engineering degree. And I’ve finally stopped thinking I’m ‘bad’ at math.

    However my current job involves doing very little math. Instead I spend a lot of time trying to reconcile economics, politics and engineering design to determine the best project option.. That’s usually way more tricky than straightforward calcs! But also even more interesting.

    • Believe it or not, logical thinking is math. I was told by a nice lady on a plane one time that they hire math grads not because they’re going to do any work with math, but because they’re good logical thinkers.
      *
      A good portion of my professional life is spent teaching people (used to be just women, but now plenty of men too, I blame NCLB) that they’re not actually bad at math. Turns out once you get over that emotional hurdle a whole world opens up. There are a lot more options out there. http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/i-am-so-glad-i-love-math/

      • Zenmoo says:

        I love the problem solving aspect of my job – but, oh! The frustrations sometimes of working with engineers who aren’t willing to understand that their ‘logical’ solution isn’t acceptable on cultural or social grounds.

        And I’ve actually seriously thought about a switch to math teaching (if I stop loving my job) on the grounds that I ‘have been there/done that’ with regard to thinking I’m ‘bad’ at math but then realised how much math there is in the world & how useful it can be. But right now, I still love my current field of work.

        • I’ve had a lot of luck with my engineering family talking culture and social stuff in their language. A lot of it is framing. My DH has recently gotten really interested in management as an engineering problem. There are problems, there are constraints, and a solution has to fit those constraints, even if social/cultural.

          • Zenmoo says:

            Exactly – that is usually how I end up framing it too. Often in table/bullet point format.

  9. ARC says:

    Fascinating. I left research science 2 years into my PhD (hooray consolation prize M.S.!) for the same reason you discuss. It wasn’t something I LOVED. Sure, I liked it, and I was ok at it, but I didn’t think about it all the time, and I couldn’t envision years of low pay while getting my PhD and the required postdoc fellowships.

    I guess I sort of ended up in STEM anyway, working on software, but I don’t write code unless I absolutely have to (which has been pretty much never in the past few years).

    I think “letting down the sisterhood” is a bunch of BS – people need to do what makes them happy.

    I have grad school colleagues who are STILL doing postdocs and looking for their career track job, while I’ve had 14 years in industry jobs. It was definitely the right choice for me to leave science and I don’t have a bit of regret.

    • Laura says:

      @ARC – that last paragraph is mind-blowing. The conversation about more people needing STEM skills has this other aspect, which is that people with STEM skills face a pretty tough job market in some areas.

      • ARC says:

        Yes! I’m hoping graduate programs in bio and chem have gotten better at steering their graduates to options other than academia. 10 years ago, it was considered some sort of fancy “alternative” career if you did something else, even if it was doing research in industry. And other options where you weren’t doing hands on research science? Never heard about those at all.

  10. Astra says:

    One thing I wonder: you compared your interest in math to that of your brother and decided yours was not enough to justify a major. I think women do this a lot, comparing the “passion” of men to their own and deciding they aren’t cut out for a certain field. My impression is that men can be more inclined to obsessiveness (is it the testosterone?) in their interests. Does that make them better? In certain respects, yes (the laser focus) but in others, no (the tunnel vision). I think we should probably point out to girls that a STEM career does not require forsaking all other interests. Some do work that way — at start-ups, say — but most don’t and have excellent careers.

    None of which is to say you made the wrong choice. I think it’s clear you chose a great path.

    • Which, of course, is why women aren’t interested in say, ballet, or horses, or teaching, or public service. (Or, [insert not-so-lucrative because it is female-dominated and must not count interest here].)

    • Laura says:

      @Astra – I am not sure men or women are more inclined to pursue jobs based on passion. I think there are arguments both way. The single-mindedness you mention, but men may absorb more messages about needing to support a family financially. If something (fiction, art, choreography, whatever) isn’t perceived as allowing that, then men may be less inclined to choose it.

    • Astra says:

      Hmm, I was trying to speak less to passion and more to imposter syndrome. I think many women think they are not cut out for a STEM career based on perception of talent and dedication and are led to leave the field when they could have been very successful.

  11. Jenna says:

    My B.S. in Materials Science & Engineering, but I found halfway through college that I really preferred business classes to engineering! I also loved nutrition — but I’m not retraining in that! I didn’t do enough exploring before I committed to a major in college. I chose it because I like solving problems — but there are business problems that are more interesting to me than how atoms interact with each other.

    I’m currently in technical sales, so I am using my technical degree and getting in more of a business role. I will need more training to progress beyond sales. Probably will get an MBA part time in the next 3-5 years.

    Even in technical sales and in an engineering college, being a women in a STEM field can be lonely. I can joke with the guys — but I’m not one of the guys. I also work at a small company, so all the women are 10+ years older than me and are mostly in admin roles. The guys my age in the company have been roommates and continue to play video games and pick up girls at bars together.

  12. Kirsten says:

    One of the science bloggers I read (Chemjobber) uses over and over again this phrase: STEM is TE. Technology and engineering are growing in the US (this may depend on your definition or subfield of engineering), the rest are fairly stagnant. This does not mean there are NO jobs in them, just it is closer to replacement level than actually growing.

    I will continue my attempts to work in the field that I have grown to love–biostatistics.