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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


Updated: Mar 19, 2019

Have you ever heard Elon Musk described as a male entrepreneur? Or Justin Trudeau described as a male politician? What about Steph Curry as a male basketball player?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

We only put a gender label on anything that doesn’t conform to rigid gender stereotypes.

Female engineers. Female entrepreneurs. Female athletes.

Male nurse, male teacher, male babysitter.

However, female teacher, female nurse, male boxer, and male plumber can sound a little strange, can’t they?

This is because our society has gendered, stereotypical expectations of occupations and activities that women and men undertake. Our brains don’t think we need to know the nurse is a woman – of course it is a woman, they are the only gender qualified to do that job! (I jest).

We only put the gender label before occupations or activities that don’t conform with our expectations of women being caring, nurturing, and nice, and of men being physical, competitive, and ruthless.

Female engineers. Female entrepreneurs. Female athletes.

We unknowingly use gender labels so our biased brains can understand that these women are in fact engineers, entrepreneurs, and athletes: occupations that require complex thinking, tenacity, and competitiveness.

Male nurse, male teacher, male babysitter.

These labels help our brains understand that these men are in occupations that require them to be caring and nurturing.

These characteristics and behaviours do not conform with the stereotypical expectations of genders, hence the need for the label.

In the case of STEM, these qualifiers reinforce day-in-day-out that STEM is a man’s field: female scientists, female engineers, female programmers. Whereas men are described only as scientists, engineers, and programmers.

This is an important matter to address as it is one of the many, many cues that women receive, informing them that STEM is not where they belong – it’s not where the naturally should be.

Understandably, some women don’t think their gender is their primary identifier ‘I’m not a woman in science, I am a scientist’ (I will explore this concept in more detail later, as I believe it is complex and can sometimes be linked to internalised misogyny). Particularly in STEM, our gender shouldn’t have to be our primary identifier – nor should our existence be justified by the relationships we have to others (she’s someone’s mother, daughter, sister, girlfriend, wife).

I encourage you to think about when you use these labels, and when you hear them used – does it make sense, or is it subtly creating a divide between the assumed baseline (i.e. men) and the subject of conversation (i.e. women in STEM)? The more we can remove the unnecessary use of these labels, the more we disrupt the harmful stereotypes and expectations that are currently barriers to all genders entering, thriving, and advancing in STEM.

Note: I do not find ‘female / male’ labels inclusive of gender fluid, gender queer or transgender people as it is not gender, but sex assigned at birth. This is why I would ‘women’ if the label were needed, however I have used ‘female / male’ here as examples as this is what people commonly say / hear.

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