literature

I Passed Up a Career in STEM for an English Degree—Here’s Why That Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Feminist

Yep, that's my copy of The Waste Land. Guys, go read that poem. I'll wait.

Yep, that’s my copy of The Waste Land. Guys, go read that poem. I’ll wait.

 

As a feminist, sometimes a newly minted humanities degree can feel a bit like a scarlet letter. After all, one of our current battlegrounds is proportional representation in STEM fields (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math for the acronym-disinclined). If you have the privilege to attend a four-year university, shouldn’t you dedicate yourself to closing the gender gap in these historically male-centric professions? And besides, don’t you ever want to have a job? Or do you like Starbucks that much?

Thanks, imaginary questioner of my life choices. Some advice: never tell a recent graduate they should’ve chosen a different field, particularly not when 40% of the unemployed are Millennials as of June 2014. That’s 4.6 million recent graduates who don’t find your faux-concern helpful.

But I can’t dismiss these concerns out of hand. As feminists, we protest—and rightly so—the lack of diversity in major Silicon Valley firms and startups. According to USA Today, the gender divide is pretty pathetic: from Facebook to Apple, Google to Twitter, they hover at around 70% male. (For reference, the total US population is 49% male.) Mind you, race is an additional issue here, since tech industries range between 70-90% white and Asian. And, of course, the intersection of race and gender provides a different lens with which to view the problem.

Yes, girls should be encouraged to pursue their passions in mechanical engineering or computer science or microbiology. We should promote toys that allow children all along the gender spectrum to experiment with what they like and what careers they might pursue. This means making female scientist play sets, and not just as a limited edition, LEGO. This means more products like Goldieblox that urge girls to develop problem solving and spatial reasoning skills, even though such toys are still generally marketed toward boys. I’m all for programs like Girls Who Code, and think that STEM education should be as gender-neutral as building blocks.

But I think embracing social sciences and the humanities can be just as much of a feminist choice as attending MIT to study programming.

Here’s the thing: in high school, I was pretty good at math. I could graph cosines and tangents. At one point, I even knew what cosines and tangents were, conceptually. (Alas, those days are gone.) Had I gone on to get a degree in computer science and work for IBM, I probably would have done fine. Guidance councilors and teachers certainly thought so, from the extent they pressured me to go for it. But I knew I would have been miserable.

So I didn’t. I took creative writing instead of chemistry, Romantic poetry instead of the “hard sciences.” Four years later, here I am, proud owner of a BA in English and Creative Writing (and so many gently used classic novels it’s probably a fire hazard). Yep, that’s right, folks: the humanities aren’t dead. Even if sometimes it feels like I’m single-handedly keeping them alive. Chat with me for thirty minutes and you’re bound to hear a Shakespeare pun slip into our conversation. Most likely, more than one.

Why is maintaining the “feelings and humanities are for the ladies, numbers and science are for the menfolk” status quo not mean I have to turn in my Feminist Card? Glad you asked.

Logically, we have to start by defining what we consider feminism. My working definition, inspired by the one, the only bell hooks: the practice of combatting gender-based oppression, or oppression based at the intersection of gender and other aspects of identity.

Gender-based oppression includes many things, but the one I want to focus on here is the devaluation of things deemed “feminine.” You know what I’m talking about. The phrase “throw like a girl” is an insult because if a girl does it, it’s got to be bad. Female emotion is trivialized, because if a girl is upset, she’s either hysterical, not to be taken seriously, or on her period. (Worth noting how cis-sexist that last one is. Even if the seat of emotion was the uterus, not all women have menstrual cycles, folks). Our society shames boys who cry, play with dolls, or wear pink, because those are all associated with something no one should ever be, if they can avoid it: feminine.

Literature, sociology, philosophy, languages, history, all these social sciences and humanities deal with subjects and experiences we’ve categorized as female. They treat the human psyche, the experience of emotions. They discuss theories of love and value and motivation and behavior. They talk about interpersonal relationships and social phenomenon. Humanities and social sciences are cultural: science and math are universal.

Does this make them less valuable?

Don’t we need the ability to look at a text or an advertisement or a speech and see its latent meanings and influences? Media literacy and awareness of social biases are crucial, and that skill set is almost indistinguishable from that of a humanities major.

Does the ability to develop complex, abstract reasoning and express it in clear, lucid prose have no place in our society? Well, if we look at the incomprehensible emails in our inbox or that poorly fact-checked web article we read this morning, we might think so. But identifying a need for change goes nowhere without enabling others to understand your point.

Feminism isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about privileging one type of life plan over another. Pro-choice feminism isn’t about making sure everyone gets an abortion, but rather making sure everyone has the possibility of having one if they so choose. The workplace equality movement isn’t about making sure every stay-at-home mom morphs into a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but that social and bureaucratic barriers preventing her from doing so are removed. Same with feminism geared toward STEM parity. The point isn’t that girls pursuing science-based careers are more valued than those interested in marketing or grant writing or fashion design, but that it shouldn’t be systematically more difficult for them to do so than for men.

We need scientists and engineers and mathematicians and astrophysicists, perhaps more than ever. No one’s questioning the dire need for reformed climate policy (well, some people are, but I digress) or infrastructural improvements across the globe. But we also need writers and thinkers and philosophers and journalists and artists. Let’s value “feminine” traits as well as “masculine” ones, soft sciences as well as hard ones. Let’s make our feminism inclusive, where the most important thing isn’t the differences in our interests, but the force of our passions that destroys all boundaries placed around them.

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