Queered Science is a series of profiles meant to highlight queer science and tell you what you need to know about it, for your intellectual edification and so you don’t feel excluded from a major and predominantly heterosexist subset of academia and industry.
Header by Rory Midhani
The first profile on my list is Dr. Erin Cech, an assistant professor and researcher in sociology at Rice University. She is my new hero and could definitely be yours too, if —like me —your hero list involves academics and novel protagonists. Cech focuses on inequality in the sciences, and specifically the subtle ways in which women, Native Americans, and LGBT people are excluded through seemingly innocuous cultural processes. You should know her because she was the lead author on a ground-breaking study in 2011 on the experiences of LGB students in engineering departments. I interviewed her last week and frantically wrote down everything she said in order to share it with you; it’s very impressive. She just off-handedly spouted the quotes I have typed below, the kind of sentences that I take hours to formulate and perfect. Oh well, I guess that’s her job.
She has two bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and sociology, but had a lot of questions about the hegemonic culture that dominates science professions. She decided to go to graduate school in sociology in order to push the cultures of engineering and science towards more diversity and inclusivity from the outside.
“Sciences are perceived as an objective, neutral place. Who you are, and what you identify with, aren’t supposed to matter in whether people think you can do science — and yet it absolutely does. There is a consistent underrepresentation of minorities of every type, and it’s often difficult to understand why from the outset. I’m interested in how inequality is a really subtle process, and how we can reproduce inequalities without noticing that’s what’s going on.”
One of the most important parts of her research is what she calls the “self-expressive edge of sex segregation,” and you should know this, because she is talking about you and to you.
“The way we construct this idea of having a career or a major or a path and how it’s a way of expressing oneself, is such a dominant cultural narrative. It’s a very common frame through which people choose a major, that what you pick is somehow expressing who you are. And in this way it might mask subtle gendered processes: people’s interests come to be gendered, and that then becomes who they think they are. It feels legitimate and organic to them, and in many ways it is. But when people make decisions as a result of these expressive choices, the societal gendering of those choices comes into play. These choices are part personal choice, but a focus on choice alone hides, or cloaks, the very important presence of this lifelong gendering process under the guise of self-expression.”
In retrospect, I experienced this very thing in middle and high school. As a youngster, I was a super girly girl. My best friend and I dressed up as Anne of Green Gables and went wandering the countryside; my grandmother helped me sew water-nymph and fairy costumes that I wore to school on a regular basis in middle school. Yes, I know. And at some point, I think in eighth grade, I decided I was bad at math and didn’t like science. I wanted to be a writer, and writing and science didn’t overlap. QED, I couldn’t do science. For the rest of my public education, with that mentality, I put little to no effort into those classes and took my resulting mediocre grades as proof that I simply wasn’t cut out for it.
It was only in college, with a very different mindset, that I turned this totally around. Through a series of unrelated events, I realized I loved glaciers and wanted to study the physics of their behavior, and this – obviously – required math. So I started slowly but worked hard, remediated some of the bad habits and misinformation I’d learned in high school, and — guess what? Now I fucking love science, and I get paid to do it. It just took a slight tilt in my personal identity, and the realization that I could be creative, artistic, frilly and girly — and science smart.
Dr. Cech explains this exact phenomenon, in sociology language:
“Interest itself, the way we learn what we should focus on, comes from experiences since birth that are often gendered. Subtle signs in teaching, parenting, media, or interactions with our peers all lead to cues about what women are supposed to like, and men are supposed to like. So even legitimate self-expression – interests, desires, etc. – can be informed by social processes.”
This leads nicely into a discussion of her 2011 study, “Navigating the Heteronormativity of Engineering: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students,” co-authored by Tom Waidzunas (Temple University) and published in Engineering Studies. As a brief summary, she found that within the dominantly heteronormative culture of engineering, there are many prejudices against LGB students that may hurt their success in the field. No surprise there. But the interesting part is that, in contrast with other minority identities, like race, queer people often have a certain amount of control over their visibility.
“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 required in the same way with other dimensions of inequality.”
This is probably something that many of us have experienced, at one point or another, either personally or by proxy. Whether for a week or for 10 years, there is a span of time in the coming out process where we have to juggle who knows and who doesn’t know; how much to share at any given time; who is within the trusted, sacred circle and who is not. And we all know that this is not comfortable. But the difference here is that it’s the academic institution and all the latent anti-gay prejudices that ferment in its silence that creates the need for this juggling.
For instance, Jessie is a 20-year-old mechanical engineer who writes a blog called Musings of a Lesbian Engineer, to let off some of the steam of being closeted at school. (She let me use her real name, but on her blog she goes by Jane Doe.) I found her blog during my research and asked her for her personal insights, and much of what she said supported Cech’s conclusions. “As for who I am currently out to, I can count it on my hand…Namely my ex, and 5 of my closest friends from home. I base this on how much I trust a person, I also tend to avoid coming out if I worry about a backlash or negative reaction. I am not out to anyone in the engineering department at my school, my roommate may have guessed by now that I am gay, but I am not certain.”
So students generally employ a combination of three strategies: passing (literally pretending to be straight and keeping their work and social lives completely distinct), covering (not necessarily pretending to be straight, but downplaying signifiers of gayness and gay culture around straight peers), and overachieving (making themselves indispensable to others, almost to make up for being gay). As you could probably predict, the results of Cech and Waidzunas’ study indicated that the constant navigating of these options adds a significant strain on these students’ energy and abilities, and often leads to a feeling of isolation within a hostile environment. Gay students might not even know about one another. Jessie agrees, “I’ve actually done the math and considering engineering is 85% men and 15% women, then there are 8.5 gay men and 1.5 lesbian women in 100 engineers. If they are anything like me I wouldn’t have a clue as to who was gay or straight.”
Interestingly, the coming out (or being out) experiences for these 8.5 gay men might differ significantly from those of the 1.5 lesbian women. Cech found that lesbians were often more likely to be accepted because the masculinity associated with the stereotypical projection of lesbians fits better with the image of typical engineers.
“This study seemed to suggest that gay men in particular felt their competence and qualification questioned, and had to push extra hard to seem qualified. In contrast, lesbian women were often given more credit than straight women; masculinity and comfort with machinery that are part of the stereotypical production of lesbians may give them some kind of credibility. Of course, lesbian women still very much have to deal with the gender dimension of inequality in engineering, but as compared to straight women, lesbians’ competence seemed more accepted. And the whole reason this dichotomy exists is because of the devaluing of the feminine in engineering.”
Maybe most important, though, is the “technical/social dualism,” that keeps us from discussing these inequalities and prejudices. We’ve discussed this idea before, that in the sciences, technical activities are the only ones valued. There is no space for subjects that could be classified as social: like talking about gay rights, or women’s rights, or social justice and inequalities. Of course, this is a false differentiation, because there is really no way to entirely separate the two, and anyone who’s worked on a team project knows that even in engineering, social dynamics are just as important as technical abilities. The devaluing of “social” topics really just serves to silence important conversations about inequalities.
This is a hard question, because you could also argue that it’s preferable to keep personal and professional lives separate. But, when it comes to the erasure and silencing of core pillars of our personal identities, the dualism must break. Jessie told me, “We don’t talk about the social problems of today, we never really talk politics. Some of my friends at school do seem to be accepting of gay[s] and lesbians. I just am horrible in social situations, and have no clue on the social protocol of coming out; there is no manual for it.” And this is a perfect example of why keeping silent on issues of LGBTQ acceptance is not enough. There is no social protocol, because coming out feels inappropriate in a science setting. We don’t create accepted social scaffolding around taboo interactions, and therefore we have no structure with which to discuss homosexuality. Jessie’s straight friends never needed to come out definitively, with or without a manual, and I’m pretty sure they do not spend time writing a blog to let off the steam of being straight in a heteronormative world either.
This is why, as Dr. Cech says:
“Perhaps the most important thing to hope for is the opening of dialogue on topics of inequality. I think it’s the most important cultural sticking point in the way of having systemic change that allows for inclusiveness. Conversations about equality and social justice are seen as tangential to the “real” work that is supposed to be done, like the equations on the board and the experiments in the lab. I’ve called it the idea of depoliticization: the idea that the removal of these social and political questions is good and even necessary for engineering, where in reality, decontextualizing everything could be quite damaging.”
“But if dialogue could be more open, more people can be on board to thinking about changes. There’s often talk about ‘we need this and that initiative, this and that change.’ But many people in science and engineering are not there yet. First we need to convince people that there’s a discussion worth having here. It deserves a place at the table just like equations on the board do.”
And therein lies one of the most important values of Cech’s research: it’s a first step towards breaking down this technical/social barrier. Her studies connect important facts about LGBT rights to the supposedly neutral and disconnected world of engineering and science, and provide a starting ground for discussion where there was none before. Because what these LGB students experience is not just restricted to engineering school. At some point in life, almost all of us will encounter (or already have encountered) a social situation in which queerness is not welcome, and we all have some experience with the ideas of passing, minimizing, or overachieving to compensate. It’s not just science where femininity is devalued, but in countless lurking cultural microcosms. And it is a constant truth that having to distance yourself from any important part of your identity leads to feelings of isolation and unhappiness. Within engineering fields and without, these things happen, and the only way to improve the situation is to talk about it.
“What I’d like to see is that the person who has been in a lab for 25 years can go and have a conversation in the hallways about LGBT equality issues with a colleague and no one thinks it’s strange,” Cech said. “We need to open a cultural space for that. Without that space, it’s just people like us pushing from the outside. Real change has to come from both, the outside and the inside.”