Does Greater Diversity in STEM Require Challenging STEM Professionals’ Beliefs About Science Itself?

Much of the research reviewed in SWE’s annual review of the literature on women in engineering and STEM reports that scientists and engineers, including women and members of underrepresented minority groups, generally believe science and engineering to be objective. While acknowledging the reality that women, Black Americans, and Latinx Americans are poorly represented in many STEM fields, professionals in those fields insist that the problem lies not with science itself. Scientific work is and should be objective, and STEM professionals are judged on the basis of the quality of their work. Hiring decisions, decisions about promotion, and other rewards are based on an assessment of the quality of the work candidates have done, not on who they are or what they look like. The lack of diversity in STEM is, thus, blamed on factors outside science, such as unequal access to education, social-psychological differences between men and women, or perhaps the nonscientific biases of individuals in the field.

In an important new book,i two sociologists, Mary Blair-Loy, Ph.D., and Erin Cech, Ph.D., make the provocative argument that it is actually this STEM “culture,” with its insistence on the objectivity of science and scientific judgments, that perpetuates inequality in the field. They summarize their argument as follows:

“We argue that definitions of merit within professional cultures reproduce inequality because they infuse gender, racial/ethnic and LGBTQ biases into the yardsticks along which professional competence and worthiness are measured.” (31)

Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech’s book reports on research they conducted at a major public research university in the United States. They surveyed and interviewed more than 500 faculty members — scientists, engineers, and mathematicians — in an effort to gain an understanding of how STEM faculty themselves account for the gender and racial inequalities that characterize their departments and fields. The academics they studied argued that STEM is a meritocracy in which success depends on the quality of one’s scientific work. They believed that doing excellent scientific work requires undivided commitment to the work itself (what Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech call the “work devotion schema”) and that excellence is rooted in individual scientists’ and engineers’ brilliance and assertiveness (Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech label this the “schema of scientific excellence”). This produces a paradox: “How can a profession that so highly regards merit and objectivity produce outcomes that are unfair for many scientists…?” (2) Answering this question, Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech contend, requires careful scrutiny of the two schemata central to the nature of STEM disciplines themselves.

They argue that the work devotion schema is cultural, not inherent to the work itself, and that it is gendered in at least two important ways. First, there is the familiar reality that women are culturally expected to devote more time and emotional energy to child care and other forms of care work, meaning it is more difficult for them to live up to the expectation that they devote themselves completely to scientific work and subordinate other aspects of their lives to this goal. Second, and remarkably, Dr. Blair-Loy and Dr. Cech find that the mothers they studied spent as much time on their research as the fathers, that they were equally successful in obtaining extramural funding as colleagues of similar age and rank, and that they were as or even more productive in terms of publications than comparable peers, both parents and nonparents. They also expressed similar levels of commitment to their research careers. Despite these facts, “many professors, even those with children themselves, generally accept the perception that mothers are less hardworking and less productive than other colleagues in their department.” (40)

The fact that mothers were regarded as less committed by definition also made it difficult for them to make use of the existing supports available to faculty with caregiving responsibilities (leaves of absence, tenure-clock stops, etc.) since doing so was seen as additional evidence of their weaker commitment to research. Many STEM faculty mothers tried not to talk about their families at work and were more likely than fathers to talk with the researchers about the stress involved in managing the conflicting demands of work and family. Mothers also paid an economic price for being mothers: Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech find that, in spite of their producing at similar or higher rates than their colleagues, mothers earned several thousand dollars less than comparable peers.

The schema of scientific excellence adhered to by STEM academics attributes excellence to the brilliance of individual scientists and emphasizes the importance of assertive behavior. The two sociologists note that these characteristics, too, are gender and race specific. It is easier for white male faculty to be perceived as “brilliant” since, historically, most “brilliant” scientists have been white men, feeding a cultural stereotype that it is a masculine characteristic.ii They found that Black, Latinx, and female faculty earn less reputational respect than their white and Asian male colleagues, net of actual publications in top journals, largely because brilliance is associated with majority and Asian males. Assertive behavior (competitiveness, risk-taking, self-promotion) is also seen as natural and appropriate behavior on the part of white male STEM faculty, but when women, faculty of color, or LGBTQ+ faculty exhibit the same behavior, it can backfire (“he’s aggressive, she’s pushy”).iii And, whether assertiveness actually is related to productivity is open to question. Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech find that faculty who identified themselves as very assertive were not more productive than comparable peers; but, despite this, those faculty received higher financial and reputational rewards.

The schema of scientific excellence also emphasizes the importance of relational skills (team building, mentoring, etc.), although somewhat less than it does brilliance and assertiveness. Dr. Blair-Loy and Dr. Cech find that white male faculty can get credit for exhibiting these skills. Female faculty, in contrast, are assumed to have strong interpersonal skills, so get no credit for displaying them. Moreover, having them can feed stereotypical images of women as “warm,” and therefore not “serious,” hard-nosed scientists, a problem male faculty don’t face.

Scientific excellence is also held to be incompatible with “politics”; it must be objective. Faculty who display a strong commitment to diversity risk violating this rule. And, as Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech point out, women, minority, and LGBTQ+ faculty are automatically assumed to have a commitment to diversity, which places them in a negative light within the schema. This is true despite the fact that those faculty who expressed a strong commitment to diversity were not less productive than comparable colleagues.

Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech’s respondents resisted research showing that female and minority faculty are less well-rewarded for their achievements, questioning the accuracy of the reported results (some of which appeared in such prestigious journals as Science). When asked to explain why so few women and minority candidates were being hired, respondents tended to fall back on pipeline answers (there aren’t many female or minority applicants) or prestige answers (we recruit only from top programs that don’t produce many women and minority graduates). Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech point out the element of rationalization in these arguments by noting that the supply of minority and female Ph.D.s in STEM is considerably larger than their share of assistant professor positions. There was even some questioning of the minority faculty who were hired (“If they’re so good, why are they here? They should have a job at a top private university”) and grumbling about what were perceived as special benefits and support available to female and minority scholars. For Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech, this resistance perpetuates the problem: “The harder [faculty] try to protect their profession’s ideals, the more they reinforce beliefs and practices that marginalize and devalue many STEM professionals and their scholarship.” (125)

Dr. Blair-Loy and Dr. Cech’s critique of prevailing definitions of scientific excellence shows how they perpetuate and make invisible the gendered character of STEM culture and institutions. Their critique also makes clear that beliefs about scientific excellence don’t actually correspond to the reality of scientific work — most pioneering work is done by collaborative teams, not brilliant, individual “cowboy” scientists; the most productive scientists are not necessarily the most assertive or the least committed to diversity, etc. The sociologists hold out the hope that the partial inaccuracy of scientists’ beliefs about the nature of their disciplines may create opportunities for change.

They also feel that change would benefit scientists and science generally. Although most scientists embrace the schemata Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech identify, the majority of those studied felt they did not live up to the ideals they espoused and had feelings of unworthiness. The excessive, self-imposed time demands of a research career strained personal lives and sometimes hindered innovation. The way merit is conceptualized undervalues important work that is essential to scientific achievement — mentoring, teaching, developing team relationships. Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech argue that science would benefit from the development of a modified schema of excellence that placed less emphasis on individual competition and more on relational skills.

SWE’s review of the literature on women in engineering and science has noted that some advocates of diversity in STEM have begun to argue that there is a need to go beyond finding ways to help women and minority group members be successful in a largely unchanged STEM universe and examine whether and how STEM disciplines need to change themselves. Drs. Blair-Loy and Cech’s book adds an important element to this line of argument by showing how the ostensibly “objective” culture of STEM plays an important role in perpetuating unequal outcomes in the profession.


i Blair-Loy, M. and Cech, E. (2022). Misconceiving Merit: Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

ii See “Dispelling the Myth of the Math Prodigy,” SWE Magazine, State of Women in Engineering 2021, pp. 462-3 for a more extended discussion of this stereotype,

iii An exception to this might be recent Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., whom Walter Isaacson describes as a successful self-promoter, much like the male scientists with whom she worked and competed. See “Two Recent Books Provide Insights from Navigating the Status Quo to Critical Analysis,” SWE Magazine, State of Women in Engineering 2022,