Can discomfort be taken seriously?

Some may think those who work in academia within STEM fields are lucky – the classes and work they do rarely involve bringing up conversations about biases, political correctness, and privilege among other things. Many of our research areas don’t involve the human experience at all, so “uncomfortable” subjects don’t usually come up in the classroom.

Just because we don’t intentionally stimulate “uncomfortable” dialogue very often doesn’t make us lucky at all. Situations that reveal biases and problems within the workplace will inevitably come about, rendering us unprepared and even more uncomfortable.

STEM fields are just as subject to inequality and biases as any other area. At my previous university, at least three women close to me reported Title IX incidents without any subsequent repercussion to the offenders. One of those reports involved a tenured, full professor in her department. She was being paid quite a bit less than her male counterparts; even less than some assistant, untenured male professors. Moreover, she was only one of two full, female professors in the department. Even further, there were no non-white faculty at any level in this department.

We never, ever talk about why white males dominate our field. Animal Science at the undergrad level is 80% female and mostly white. However, those with leadership positions in Animal Science, and agricultural fields as a whole – almost 100% male. I’m not entirely bothered by this, because I feel these dynamics are slowly changing at the academic level. What does bother me is that our higher-ups know these issues exist, and still choose to blatantly gloss over them.

Consequently these conversations are rarely had. When they come up in the workplace, they are not serious. Males dominate the dialogue, and as a woman I usually find myself feeling sheepish and not wanting to be contrary. I’ve been witness to such conversations where a woman will be brave enough to interject, only to later hear the men talking amongst themselves about the content of her character. As a result, my automatic reaction when the subject of bias arises is to be passive. Unfortunately, that’s how women are conditioned to be in our society – agreeable, cooperative, apologetic even.

The power dynamic rules in these situations.  Georgetown’s guides for using heated topics as a learning tool make the task seem more approachable. However, those mainly apply to a classroom setting when you hold the power cord of the conversation. The question is, how can we overcome the fear of having the unpopular opinion if we aren’t in the power role or in the majority? How can we learn to be okay with creating discomfort?