The STEM movement has done a lot of good to bring women into fields that are traditionally male dominated, but I want to tell a story about my personal experience with the movement and what I perceive as its drawbacks.
It’s great to want women to succeed in STEM and I 100% support that. However, in my experience, STEM is often pushed as the only legitimate career path, at the expense of traditionally feminine lines of work. Pushing women into one line of work or another is never the solution—we should be trying to get rid of gender roles in the workplace altogether, and allow individuals to pursue whatever it is that they are passionate about.
Movements like the STEM movement always grow and change, but sometimes they are misinterpreted or watered down to a different message altogether. I became aware of the STEM movement in high school and started internalizing its message then. However, the message I was receiving wasn’t “women should be able to go into STEM if they like it and want to” but rather “women, if they are good at it, must go into STEM”.
I have always been a creative person at heart. While I’m good at ‘playing school’ and have the tenacity to get by in most subjects, that doesn’t mean I enjoy them. When I was growing up, if asked the infamous question, “What school subject is your favorite?”, I would always shrug, even when the voice inside me whispered “art”. By the time I got to college, I had been telling myself for years that I couldn’t go into a creative field because an art major wasn’t ‘academic enough’. I felt that I had the responsibility to pursue a career in STEM because I was good at it, despite my lack of interest. So, first quarter freshman year, I signed up for an intro class in computer science.
Computer science was a STEM field that I had no prior experience with, so I thought maybe I would enjoy it more than the other STEM fields I had already tried. I told myself that computer science was ‘creative enough’ and because I got to build things maybe I could trick myself into being happy with it. It took me two years to come to terms with the fact that computer science wasn’t creative enough for me after all. STEM without art wouldn’t give me a satisfying career.
It took a lot of courage for me to switch majors. I applied to the graphic design major at Western without a backup plan and got really, really lucky that it worked out. Getting into the design major changed my outlook on college entirely. It’s not because design is less work—I’m even more likely to pull all-nighters working on projects now than I was as computer science major. However, because I am now passionate about my work, it’s not as stressful anymore. I don’t get burned out the way I used to; when I would tell myself to just keep my head down and not think about it. And that means that I can put even more effort into what I’m learning.
I chose design for a lot of reasons: it’s one of the most applicable art degrees, it’s got tons of subfields, and it can pair very well with computer science. After getting into the design major I continued taking computer science classes and completed a minor in it. My goal was never to quit computer science altogether—coding is still something I enjoy—but rather to find a way to incorporate art with it. By getting a degree in design I now have the ability to do that, by pursuing a career in UX Design, UI Design, or front-end development.
STEM isn’t the be-all end-all academic field, and shouldn’t be treated as such. And while I have found a way to combine STEM with the arts in my life, I don’t want “STEAM is the answer” to be the takeaway from this story. STEAM—being STEM with art—is definitely an improvement, but I’ll say it again—pushing any one field over others as the ‘only legitimate option’ alienates people who have passions elsewhere. Pushing STEM, a traditionally male field, over arts and other women-dominated fields, like literature or nursing, just enforces the idea that women should be more like men to compete in a “man’s world”. We should instead strive for a society that respects all fields of work, where everyone can pursue their passions regardless of gender.