The National Conversation

Changing the Image of STEM

In recent years, a national conversation has emerged about gender stereotypes, visibility, and women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. Women in the STEM community have found their collective voice and medium on Twitter using viral hashtag campaigns that challenge stereotypes, sexist comments and preconceived notions about women in engineering and science. These social media campaigns reveal our cultural assumptions about what scientists and engineers look like:  namely, White or Asian men. This inaccurate stereotype fuels discrimination, illuminating the need to re-image and re-imagine today’s STEM professionals.

Images of women scientists in labs and field sites contradict society’s cultural assumptions about women in STEM—primarily that they shouldn’t be there, that they don’t fit in, that women and girls can’t do math or use technology. The images from these campaigns thereby actively re-gender STEM by questioning our beliefs about gender norms and who conducts scientific research. The huge response to these campaigns also shows a growing community of #womeninSTEM who are connected by social media and by their shared experiences of being outsiders.

Similar themes run through the experiences of the UVA women STEM faculty in their oral histories. Gender norms meant that many fellow students, teachers and professors did not believe these women belonged in science or math classes. As professionals, colleagues questioned women’s abilities, denied them opportunities, and excluded them. Throughout their careers, these, and many other women, continuously have to prove their skills and expertise—they must prove they belong in STEM.

Social Media Campaigns


In June 2015, Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize winner and scientist at the University College London, gave a speech at a conference. He said:

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.

In a hilarious display of wit and self-empowerment, women scientists posted images of themselves on Twitter under #distractinglysexy.



LaRue Distractingly Sexy


In the summer of 2015, platform engineer Isis Wenger found herself at the center of sexist backlash against women engineers. The company where she worked, OneLogin, asked her and three male employees to be part of a marketing campaign to recruit new employees. The ads featured a photo of each employee in a black T-shirt with the company logo, and a quote about why they liked working at the company.

The photo of Wenger was posted throughout San Francisco and on media campaigns. In response, people posted sexist comments on her blog and to the company. Many men did not believe Wenger was an engineer—not only was she female, she was “too pretty” to be an engineer. Some thought the ad was a joke.


Wenger’s response was to launch the #ilooklikeanengineer Twitter campaign, and write on her blog about sexism she has faced in her career:

This [tech] industry’s culture fosters an unconscious lack of sensitivity towards those who do not fit a certain mold. I’m sure that every other woman and non-male-identifying person in this field has a long list of mild to extreme personal offenses that they’ve just had to tolerate. I’m not trying to get anyone in trouble, fired or ruin anyone’s life. I just want to make it clear that we are all humans, and there are certain patterns of behavior that no one should have to tolerate while in a professional environment.


Women scientists and engineers have started other Twitter campaigns; see #girlswithtoys and #womeninSTEM.


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