Reflections on the gender binary, queerness,
and the phallocentrism of the sciences
The 21st century looks promising for the LGBTQ+ community: with courts and legislatures lifting restrictions on same-sex marriage state after state and 92 percent of queer adults reporting feeling more acceptance from society today than they did ten years ago, it’s undeniable that queer issues have emerged at the frontier of civil rights. After hundreds of years of oppression and persecution, it seems like America is finally listening.However, while we should celebrate the triumphs and progress our generation has made, many individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ believe there is still a long road to walk before the glass closet can be shattered. The STEM fields are a classic representation of a hegemonic culture that can slowly and covertly discourage those who may not identify with the hyper-masculine identity present in its practice. And the effects can be detrimental: a psychological turmoil for those who do not conform to its mainstream identity politics, and a vast pool of talent that is quietly lost for the sciences.
For some, it begins at a young age. The phrase “gender socialization” refers to the psychological process of constructing a person’s gender by informing them of what attitudes and behaviors are appropriate for their sex. Its influence in society is almost inescapable: popular toys targeted towards girls include Barbies and mini bakery shops, which breed attention to aesthetics and domesticity, while boys are given video games and action figures which can foster a problem-solving or combative nature that is also evident in the tech industry.These social constructions that are reinforced throughout one’s life can be harmful for people who identify as LGBTQ+ and are interested in the maths and sciences. If the Boy Scouts host a series of workshops covering topics in chemistry, astronomy, and engineering, while the Girl Scouts hosts a single workshop titled “Science With a Sparkle,” a genderfluid person might feel alienated from either binary and also internalize a notion that the sciences are designed for the cisgender male.
I’ve spoken to many social scientists about what they refer to as the ‘leaky pipeline.’ It refers to a magic age, around 11 years, where adolescents begin to form an identity around whether they are good at math. If you miss that window of opportunity, it can be difficult to recapture it. — professor Moon Duchin
This gender binary can continue to manifest in different ways throughout one’s STEM career: the concept of “professionalism” in the workplace masquerades as neutral and non-political, but can silently alienate a genderqueer person by making their self-expression taboo. Someone might be told to remove their involvement with the LGBTQ+ community from their resume or that it’s improper for men to wear makeup at the workplace. And this is not a phenomenon that specifically targets queer people; a corporate dress code that bans “cross-dressing” might also look down upon someone with dreadlocks or a headscarf. A 2009 study by the UK Times showed that 64 percent of directors said that women who wear makeup appear more professional than those who do not.
When I realized I was expected to dress or act a certain way in order to be considered ‘professional,’ it made me want to burst out of my own skin. It made me feel like my own choices to present my own body were wrong or illegitimate. — junior Madison Steele
We can see how this concept of ‘professionalism’ can be morphed into a synonym for ‘heteronormative,’ which refers to a worldview where heterosexuality is the normal or preferred sexual orientation. This heteronormativity is also embodied in our perception of the sciences as an unemotional, objective faculty that is fixated on truth and assertion of dominance. Its pursuit of factual knowledge attempts to detach the self from the work, but can nonetheless promote a sense of gender “blindness” — where scientists and engineers believe they are working in a space devoid of sex or privilege but unconsciously perpetuate genderized structures or practices that can be harmful for those who identify as queer.
A neuroscientist once told me that gender self-identification doesn’t exist, and that it’s something that is determined by your body at birth and not by the individual. There is this neo-liberal Silicon Valley ideology of science as an enterprise that illuminates truth and creates progress, but oftentimes this idea of progress is mythical or illusory. — junior Drew Zeiba
The language and discourse of the Western sciences has been largely constructed by white cis men, so to divide the sciences and humanities into the ‘objective truth’ and ‘subjective experience’ deems the phallocentric dialogue of the sciences to be more legitimate. In a 1991 article published by NYU professor of socio-cultural anthropology Emily Martin, she writes about how the terminology used in many modern science textbooks describes menstruation in negative and misogynistic ways. Menstruation is portrayed as a failure because the egg is not fertilized and the woman’s uterine tissues begin to “break down” or “slough off”. Martin ascribes this perception to linguistic and cultural gender bias: words used to describe menstruation imply failure, dirtiness, structural breakdown, a secret illness of the woman.
The sciences have a lot of tangible benefits and elucidate many realities in our world, but we also need to question who is conducting this knowledge. It comes in the form of a hegemony but is seen as the truth. —junior Madison Steele
This implicit bias can go ignored or unexamined within a scientific community that prides itself in its perceived gender ‘blindness,’ which can silently and subconsciously alienate someone who does not conform to the norm. This could lead the LGBTQ+ person to feeling safer or more accepted in some liberal arts environments where issues of gender and sexuality are openly critiqued and deconstructed instead of censored under the shadow of ‘professionalism.’ This causes a vicious cycle: the homogeneity of the sciences is thus left untouched, reinforcing the white man’s word as the objective truth.
While many members of the queer community have ultimately chosen to discontinue their pursuit in STEM fields despite their initial passion for science, other queer engineers say that they would not characterize their experience as a “struggle.” This elucidates how there is no such thing as a single queer dialogue; every person carries with them a different collections of obstacles encountered and triumphs celebrated and experiences to be listened to and honored.
I actually think it’s healthy that I have a community of math colleagues and collaborators, but I also have a community that is outside of mathematics and academia altogether. Having these overlapping but distinct social worlds has served me well everywhere I’ve gone; it can actually be very positive to have multiple identities and feel yourself flowing between them. — professor Moon Duchin
Duchin has created a natural separation between her work and private life for personal reasons not necessarily related to her queerness, but others may have a more difficult time finding this kind of harmony. Since gender and sexuality are internal rather than external traits, some queer people may resort to ‘compartmentalizing‘ their identity when they feel it’s inappropriate in their work or academic life through subtle or drastic changes. They may avoid bringing up their same-sex partner in conversation or try to speak without an inflection in their voice, while others may choose to dress according to a cisgender identity. Some have no issue with this identity oscillation while others report these actions having serious psychological effects on their perception of self.
Queer students are often out to some friends but not others, so there’s this dynamic of information control, which brings with it concerns about compartmentalizing. They have their personal life versus school life, and they have to manage how to keep them separate. These boundaries, and the mental calculus involved, aren’t always required with other dimensions of inequality. — professor Erin Coch
This need for compartmentalization can lead to someone ‘hiding‘ behind other identities that they may feel are more standardized within STEM — a process of masking over the non-conforming aspects of their individuality in order to be accepted. Some people may be able to do this more successfully than others since gender privilege manifests in many dynamic ways and is inextricably linked to race, class, and sexuality. A gay white male UX designer may find themselves ‘blending in’ more than a transgender black female engineer might.
I would never chastise someone for hiding their queer identity because living a life as any minority can be hard and exhausting enough in itself; it’s unfair to expect them to also become an advocate for that identity and thus face constant backlash. — sophomore Eliza Schreibman
Schreibman and junior Maya Saxena are working on a project in their Game Design class that aims to elucidate some of the gender and race inequalities present in Western video game culture. Their game, which Schreibman describes as “Maya’s brainchild,” is targeted towards middle school girls in order to inspire interest in careers in STEM. It features prominently-displayed characters with non-binary gender identities as well as characters of color, populations that are often dehumanized or underrepresented in video games.With the recent Gamergate Controversy and suicides of Rachel Bryk and Kate Von Roeder, it’s evident that these communities are still marginalized in the greater tech industry. Since STEM fields are still largely dominated by white men, the technologies produced often also cater to white men and can perpetuate hidden phobic mentalities. This causes a vicious cycle where someone could subtly internalize that the sciences are a phallocentric boys’ world, leading them to stop pursuing their interest in the field. Small acts against these norms could reverse some of the symbolic erasure members of these communities have experienced.
Many queer people in STEM work tirelessly to make the science and engineering fields a safer space for members of underrepresented populations, but we should be careful not to morph their activism into a belief that all queer people should always be working on ‘queer’ things. When we think of a queer scientist, we should not only think of someone who is writing a feminist history of math thesis but also the queer scientist who is a Star Trek nerd, data science junkie, a UX designer, or a functional programmer. We can avoid tokenizing their identity by recognizing that there is no such thing as a single queer dialogue, and that the queer person’s stories and perspectives do not encompass their entire identity.
It’s not like I woke up one day and decided to become who I am now. If a younger and more feminine-presenting me could look at myself today, she might think that this masculine representation was my entire identity. But it’s not like that — my transition was fluid, it came as a series of small discomforts. One day my long hair felt wrong on my head, so I buzzed it off. And sometime after that, I just didn’t like wearing dresses anymore. — junior Madison Steele
While we should not capitalize on any single aspect of someone’s identity, we must understand that these differences exist in order to avoid making the mistake of gender blindness. Progress in STEM is centered around collaboration, and a conscious scientist can make these environments more inclusive for people from all backgrounds and identities through simple measures like asking someone what pronoun they’d like to be referred by or by being careful of the internal structures inside themselves that might subconsciously contribute to microaggressions.
The idea of not assuming someone’s gender is still radical today, but I think it does begin with small things. You should try to refer to your [programming] partner by their preferred pronoun, and you shouldn’t talk down to them under any circumstances. Just because it is a microaggression doesn’t mean it’s not an aggression. Violence is not just writing ‘go home faggot’ on someone’s door. — sophomore Eliza Schreibman
There are also times when people of marginalized identities can take misunderstandings or subtle hostilities as reflections on their character. For example, a woman who always has the keyboard taken over by her male partner during a project may begin to believe he doesn’t trust her because she is a woman — even if this assertive behavior never bothered a male partner. This is an effect of years of internalized aggression: the person begins to police themselves and see all criticisms as reflections of their identity. It elucidates a cultural double-standard that we should critique and disband: the LGBTQ+ scientist should not be expected to shatter all traditional stereotypes about their identity and also be an excellent engineer just to be accepted within STEM.
When you’re a girl, you have to be everything. You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy, and you have to be this and you have to be that and you have to be nice, and you have to — it’s like, I can’t be all of those things at once. I’m a human being. — rapper Nicki Minaj
The struggles, triumphs, stories, and experiences expressed in this article are also not phenomena specific to STEM. Any subgroup that has access to social capital and breeds a competitive or combative nature in its participants will see similar gender, racial, or class inequalities. And when we engage in discourse on one, we can begin to deconstruct them all.
The author of this article does not identify as LGBTQ+, but she hoped to provide a platform for some of these voices within STEM to be heard. This article does not fully represent the opinion of any single person; it is a compilation of many different dialogues from people of many different backgrounds. She hopes it honors some of the queer scientists and engineers she was given the opportunity to speak with.