We usually think of underrepresentation as a problem of numbers: STEM fields are `disproportionately' male, or white, or straight, or able-bodied, etc. As evidence, we cite facts about the percentage of tenured faculty who are female or people of colour or queer or disabled, etc. (To cut down on the number of lists like these, I'm going to primarily use the generic `group X'. Substitute in your favourite oppressed social group for the X.)
But such facts are insufficient to establish a claim that group X is underrepresented in STEM. In order to establish this claim, we need the normative claim that the percentage of tenured faculty who are members of group X in a STEM field should be approximately such-and-such, or in the range from here to there. And that should causes problems, because (at least in part) no-one seems to have given much systematic through to how we're going to determine what comes after it, or even whether it's the right sort of claim. Nor is it at all clear what's backing up that normative claim: why should the percentage of group X-tenured faculty in a STEM field should be between a and b?
So, instead, I'd like to suggest another (or a novel) way of understanding underrepresentation. On this approach, underrepresentation is a matter of epistemic injustice (I'm drawing on Miranda Fricker here, too). More formally, underrepresentation is about the way certain groups are deprived of access to certain communities of epistemic and political power and prestige. (Namely, STEM communities.) As I see it, there are two aspects to this deprivation:
- whether members of group X have the same access to membership in the prestigious community as members of other groups, and
- whether the members of group X are oppressed within the prestigious community.
To put these in terms of the underrepresentation of women within STEM, the first aspect concerns whether women can get into the laboratory -- as a group, do they have opportunities to become scientists, engineers, and mathematicians? The second concerns their status within the laboratory -- does the STEM community treat women justly?
With just this much, we can make some preliminary observations. First, the feminist underrepresentation claim is that women are oppressed within certain STEM disciplines. The corresponding opposition claim is that women are not oppressed within STEM. Second, numbers tell us something, but not everything. This parallels injustice in the broader society: looking at the race and gender of poverty can tell us something, but it doesn't give us a complete understanding of economic, racial, or gender injustice. Third, examining the satisfaction of (Humean) preferences (as John Tierney did in the NYT article that inspired the FPh post) is only relevant to the extent that the satisfaction of (Humean) preferences is significant in the theory of justice we are using to analyse underrepresentation as epistemic injustice. Unless you're a utilitarian, this will be at best only somewhat significant -- again, it won't give us a complete picture.
I mentioned Young's book up in the first paragraph. Young has two major goals in this book: to challenge what she calls the `distributive paradigm' in mainstream political philosophy and theory, and to articulate in its place an alternative paradigm of injustice as oppression. The last paragraph parallels the first task: my observations indicate that a statistical examination of the distribution of resources and positions of power gives an incomplete picture of underrepresentation. This distribution is certainly relevant to issues of epistemic justice, but not the whole story.
Young lays out her alternative approach to justice as a taxonomy of forms of oppression. Borrowing this taxonomy as our background theory of justice, we can re-articulate the feminist claim of underrepresentation as epistemic injustice: women are exploited, marginalized, powerless, and sometimes subject to cultural imperialism and violence within STEM.
1. Women are exploited as research assistants, technicians, instructors, test subjects, secretaries, janitors, and other assistants and support staff to primary investigators and tenured faculty. Their work, both creative and menial, is appropriated by and benefit PIs and tenured faculty. I say `women are exploited as research assistants', for example, and not `research assistants are exploited' because these lower status positions are disproportionately held by women or held by women who are less likely to receive eventual returns on their sacrifices than their male colleagues (the leaky pipeline effect).
2. Women are marginalized and powerless is similar ways. (Young is not, to my mind, entirely clear on the difference between these two.) Assistants and support staff to PIs and tenured faculty have little or no power to make decisions about the research they will participate in or how they will participate in it. They might be able to choose whether or not to participate at all, or suggest new directions, experiments, research strategies, etc., but have no real power to shape the course of research. Similarly, instructors and teaching assistants have little or no discretion over their courses -- they are assigned by their superiors to teach this class or that, on a term-by-term basis, and usually based on the department's need to cover teaching duties perceived as menial or boring by tenured faculty (Physics 101, the early calculus sequence, remedial classes, etc.). The content of these courses is usually dictated by official standards and texts or all the sections of a course being linked to a standardized midterm and final.
3. Cultural imperialism and violence, Young's last two categories of oppression, are less common than the first two (treating marginalization and powerlessness as one category for the moment), but still issues of injustice within STEM than need attention. Cultural imperialism refers to the widespread acceptance of stereotypes and biassed perceptions of marginalized groups. In the context of STEM, this would mean the acceptance of scientific theories with, say, sexist content and implications. Uncontroversial historical examples abound -- Stephen Jay Gould's The mismeasure of man has some jaw-dropping ones. More controversial are contemporary theories of, for example, gender- and race-linked differences in the distribution of IQ and problem-solving abilities and still-prevalent `active male/passive female' models of fertilization. (In this post, I'm going to remain neutral on the question of whether any of these theories was epistemically acceptable in its heyday, or is epistemically acceptable today. Perhaps there are genuine dilemmas of epistemic justice.)
4. Violence is exactly what you would expect. I suspect -- though I could be wrong -- that violence is a pervasive or systematic problem only in medical and pharmacological treatment and research, and not other STEM fields. (Although perhaps medicine and pharmacology should not be classified as STEM fields at all.) Violence in medicine is closely linked with race and class, and with powerlessness: women of colour and living in poverty have been subject to forced sterilization as recently as the 1970s, they are less likely to receive proper medical care and due respect for their autonomy as patients, and so on.
Similar observations apply to racial groups, and of course disability. (I suspect there's a whole thesis to be written on the ways disabled people are the victims of violence within medicine.)
I have one final observation. One especially persistent feminist criticism of STEM fields with underrepresentation problems (I've heard this about philosophy, physics, mathematics, computer science, and economics) is the prevalence of a macho, aggressive, or `duelist' culture (the phrase is Janice Moulton's) that is supposed to drive many women away from these fields. In such a culture, one is supposed to be a vigorous and aggressive defender of one's views in a such argumentative context; the thought is that this creates a great deal of competition, effectively weeding out the weakest (and, presumably, therefore untrue) ideas. Traditional feminine attributes of pleasantness and self-abasement create a catch-22: either women cannot adopt these aggressive norms (they conflict too much with the way they have been taught to behave), or they are punished and disparaged by their male colleagues for being too aggressive.
This is, I think, an extremely important criticism. But I'm not sure where to place it in Young's taxonomy of oppression. Perhaps one side of the dilemma is marginalization -- women who do not adopt the aggressive stance are denied standing within the community -- and the other is cultural imperialism -- the successful imposition of masculine norms of behaviour on women.