If you read Amber Roberts' Twitter bio, it's clear she has an impressive resume: AI program director, astrophysicist, science communicator, machine learning engineer, and (importantly) chocolate connoisseur. Well, recently she tweeted and it went viral – but, sadly, for all the wrong reasons.
On Thursday, she took to social media to tell her followers of an incident she experienced at an airport involving a random guy asking her why she needs two laptops.
Apparently, people got so worked up about it all, it spawned not one but two (since trending) threads on the Reddit group r/iamverysmart where people questioned her need for separate laptops while accusing her of using the incident to humblebrag and claim non-existant misogyny. So if the patronizing tone of the man at the airport wasn't enough to highlight the many (if often small-scale) acts of discrimination women in STEM face on a regular basis, some of the comments on the thread most certainly are.
Many (quite fairly) suggested the man was simply curious about her need for two laptops and would have asked her why regardless of whether she was male or female. But, as a Twitter user pointed out, something as simple as the tone of the question can suggest a hidden (and sometimes not-so-hidden) prejudice.
And it might be worth mentioning, while many assumed Roberts was being oversensitive, many also assumed the "random guy" was, in fact, a security official. He was not.
Many responses were more positive, praising Roberts or offering up their own similar experiences – and several men jumped in to say that even though they often carry around several phones, tablets, and laptops for work purposes, they themselves had never been asked about it.
Isolated stories of microaggressions such as these aside, studies and surveys show that women are not only grossly outnumbered in STEM professions but they face greater discrimination and experience significantly more incidents of sexual assault than men in the same careers (particularly if they are women of color.) A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that half of all women in STEM jobs have faced discrimination at work (in contrast to 19 percent of men), whether that's earning less than their male counterparts (29 percent), being treated as less competent than their male counterparts (29 percent), or experiencing less support than male counterparts (18 percent).
One study, published in the journal PeerJ in 2016, is particularly illuminating when it comes to stereotypes about gender and scientists. Despite being perceived as better coders when gender is anonymized, women are automatically seen as less able as soon as gender is disclosed – a depressing fact actress, model, and programmer Lyndsey Scott is no doubt well aware of.
It appears that this bias starts at an early age, with girls as young as six believing brilliance, exceptional talent, and genius are male traits. And it is perhaps not so surprising these stereotypes still exist when you remember that until Donna Strickland this year, a woman hadn't been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for 55 years.
The good news is that while there are still problems, the number of women in STEM fields and STEM-related courses is growing – even if, as STEM Women reports, only 24 percent of 2017's graduates were female. Initiatives like the Nature-sponsored "Innovating Science Award" are helping to promote and endorse female scientists.
And while Roberts' incident may sound inconsequential in the grand scheme of things – or in her words, "no big deal" – if they are not pointed out, the cycle will likely continue, perpetuating negative stereotypes about women in science.