"To the women in my engineering classes: While it is my intention in every other interaction I share with you to treat you as my peer, let me deviate from that to say that you and I are in fact unequal," begins Jared Mauldin's letter to The Easterner, the Eastern Washington University college paper. But before you face-palm, read the whole thing. Trust me. It's worth it — and it makes an extremely important point about sexism, both in STEM fields and in society at large.
The letter continues:
I did not, for example, grow up in a world that discouraged me from focusing on hard science. Nor did I live in a society that told me not to get dirty, or said I was bossy for exhibiting leadership skills... I was not bombarded by images and slogans telling me that my true worth was in how I look, and that I should abstain from certain activities because I might be thought too masculine.
But it's the final two lines that drive it all home: "So, you and I cannot be equal. You have already conquered far more to be in this field than I will ever face."
Maudlin told Ms. that a female classmate inspired him to write the letter. Though she was an outstanding student in their calculus class, the men in the class would avoid her when they had to partner up for projects and assumed she was wrong when she disagreed with their answers. This happens to women in all of his classes, he said, adding:
We [men] can’t know what it feels like to grow up in a society where these subtle slights are the norm; a society where women have become so accustomed to them that they can only recall the major ones. We cannot empathize, and our experiences are not the same, but we can listen and try to understand.
When privileged people stand up for marginalized groups like this, the media coverage often spins the story in a way that glorifies the ally rather than thinking about how the group they're speaking up for could benefit (or not benefit) from the attention. Mauldin himself told The Huffington Post he was concerned people are paying attention to what he has to say because he is a man, while women have already said the same thing over and over. So, instead, let's focus on his message that women in STEM — and women throughout our society — face obstacles that men don't always understand because they're not forced to live with them.
Indeed, in one survey of women who have left STEM fields, gender inequality was a commonly cited reason for leaving. Another survey found that two of the seven most commonly cited reasons women choose not to enter male-dominated industries were patronizing male colleagues and a macho atmosphere. And one survey on female scientists found that over a third felt pressure to play a stereotypically feminine role at work and two-thirds — including 77 percent of black women — felt they had to prove themselves repeatedly.
It's especially important to be aware of how biases push women out of science and technology when people are still offering biological explanations for the gender gap in these fields. Only recently has the mainstream media begun to accept that cultural factors account for most, if not all, of the STEM gap. When we see how strong and deep-seated our biases against women in STEM really are, biological explanations no longer seem necessary.
Perhaps the most important point Mauldin brings up is that it is very hard for people who haven't experienced sexism themselves to notice it, but that doesn't mean it's not happening all around us. The discouragement of women in male-dominated fields is the cumulative result of many microaggressions and widespread customs we don't even think about, like the objectification of women, the different ways parents interact with boys and girls, and the tendency to interrupt, ignore, and "mansplain" to women.
It's important for men to speak out about "women's issues" because they really affect us all. But let's ask ourselves why we don't pay as much attention when women speak out about the sexism they've experienced. This tendency to ignore women could be part of the reason fewer women are in male-dominated fields in the first place. And instead of making this a feel-good story about someone who took a stand for social justice, let's remember Maudlin's letter does not represent the reactions that most of his female colleagues receive, and let's think about ways to change that.