Scitech | #ILookLikeSTEM

Some people in today’s society claim that discrimination, especially sexism, is a thing of the past in the world of science and engineering. And yet, when you think of an engineer or a scientist, what image comes to mind? If we ask children to draw a scientist, what traits will be present in their sketches? Most often, people think of a white man when they think of a “normal” engineer, and this idea is more ingrained in our society than we tend to realize – a problem that people are starting to combat, via Twitter.

The population of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, collectively known as STEM, is not made up of just white men; it consists of people of diverse genders, races, and backgrounds. Unfortunately, certain groups are often marginalized in their own field, leaving many feeling alienated by the STEM environment. The use of hashtags has allowed people marginalized in their field to find others with similar experiences, allowing them to discuss and feel less alone.

Hashtag communities have taken on a distinct role in the realm of activism and politics, allowing people to converse and respond quickly to recent events, a report from the 2011 general conference of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) at the University of Reykjavik notes. As far as STEM goes, a multitude of hashtags exist – like #BLACKandSTEM, #NativeAndSTEM, #LatinAndSTEM, and #WomenInTech – all of which help create space for those who often lack representation in STEM to discuss discrimination, share successes, and exchange opportunities. Other hashtags, such as #ILookLikeAnEngineer and #DistractinglySexy, consolidate responses to instances of injustice, demonstrating the magnitude of people’s frustrations and creating a place for people to unite over a similar cause. Such hashtags provide a way to call out racism and sexism in the STEM industry and to share firsthand examples of discrimination in a way that pushes the general public to reevaluate what we consider to be the norms in STEM.

#ILookLikeAnEngineer directly challenges popular perceptions of what an engineer looks like. This hashtag rose to prominence after Isis Anchalee Wenger, a young woman who is an engineer at OneLogin, was featured in a photo for a recruitment campaign for the company. The ad received negative comments from internet users that stated that she wasn’t even close to “what a female software engineer looks like.” Wenger then created the hashtag as a way to break down stereotypes about engineering. Through this hashtag, women tweeted in solidarity with Wenger, sharing their own experiences of sexism and drawing attention to prejudices that exist in their fields.

Another hashtag, #DistractinglySexy, was created in June in response to Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s claim that that the problem with having girls in a lab is “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”

Stephani Page, a PhD candidate in Biology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, started the #BLACKandSTEM tag in February 2014 in order to connect with other Black people in STEM fields. There was a resounding response, and now the hashtag is widely used. Tweets cover everything from warped representations of Black people in research papers, to cool projects that Black people in STEM are working on, racist encounters, notices of job opportunities, and general chatting and networking. This hashtag allows those who feel marginalized as Black people in STEM to find a community of people who understand what they go through on a daily basis. Scrolling through Twitter feeds, it is easy to find examples of prejudice that people experience – calling people out publicly on their racism in STEM fields is a powerful way of sending the message that this is not to be tolerated.

These hashtags give tangible evidence that a dialogue around sexism and racism is sorely needed in order to address the way we think and talk about STEM. Not only do they allow people to connect in terms of shared experiences, but their use is also a form of activism. However, while hashtags like these quickly go viral and occasionally make it into mainstream media, they often don’t receive as much visibility as is needed for those in STEM who are oblivious to the issue of prejudice and lack of diversity in STEM fields, to realize the degree of these issues within STEM.

While things have improved, there is still an uphill battle to be fought when some continue to claim that inequalities in STEM are somehow ‘not society’s fault,’ attributing racial and gender disparities instead to ‘biological differences’ between groups of people. Nevertheless, as Paolo Gerbaudo explains in the 2012 book Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism, Twitter has now given people a new platform for protest, and what happens in the Twitterverse has direct implications in our society. These hashtags are a reason to remain hopeful that the STEM fields will not only be increasing technological innovations in society, but will also increase the representation of groups marginalized in STEM.