Every time I read articles about the gender disparity in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), I immediately apply everything I'm reading to music, particularly our little field of composition. This story from NPR about "stereotype threat" seemed very relevant to me and I couldn't help thinking it goes on in music all the time. The gist of it is that when women think about the stereotype of women not being as good as men in the STEM fields (or composition), they actually sound less competent when talking about their work because they're using brainpower worrying about the stereotype. But you should read (or listen to) the full article to get the whole (very interesting) explanation about the study. The conclusion of the scientists who conducted the study: "In order to boost the numbers of women who choose to go into those fields, you have to boost the number of women who are in those fields."
I completely identified with the women in this study. I kept reading lines and nodding, having had those feelings. It's not that I don't think I'm as good a composer as my male colleagues, or that I'm not as smart as them, etc. It's that when I was in grad school (and sometimes still, but it's a lot easier to forget about the stereotypes when they're not staring you in the face all the time) I constantly saw that I was one of only a few women in the composition department, on recital programs, in music classes. Not to mention the token women mentioned in textbooks and represented on recordings and concerts in the real world.
But we've talked about the numbers before. What I never thought about before is how I often became tongue-tied when talking to male colleagues and professors about music but could easily converse intelligently with them about my weekend plans, family, or whatever else you discuss in casual conversation. And I'm exaggerating a little here. It's not that I couldn't speak intelligently about music with men. And I was completely fine when left to my own devices while writing a paper, for example. But as I was reading the article, all these memories came flooding back about sitting in a class or lesson worrying that I sounded stupid, or feeling that I couldn't articulate clearly what I wanted to say, but being much more comfortable and at ease talking about any other topic. In case you're reading this before you read the article- it has nothing to do with anyone making me feel bad or anyone thinking they're better at composing than I am- it has to do with the prevailing stereotype. Whether the men I was speaking with believed the stereotype or not, and I assume most of them didn't, it didn't matter, because I was still (subconsciously) worried about it. But one reason I loved this article is that it made very clear that the research "does not imply that the gender disparity in science and math fields is all 'in women's heads.' The problem isn't with women, [one of the researchers] said. The problem is with the stereotype."
(Unfortunately, I can't comment on my ease in discussing music with other women during grad school because there were so few of us. I can't remember any issues in particular, but that's probably because conversations with other women didn't happen as frequently.)
I'm sure that some of these memories are a little biased right after reading this article... or at least I hope they are. But one memory that I have very, very clearly from grad school is the constant fear of appearing stupid. I'm not even talking about trying to prove myself- that was there too, of course, but the baseline of not appearing stupid was much more in the forefront of my mind (I was also one of the youngest composers in the program, which probably also didn't help). I know that everyone feels this way sometimes. But do we all feel that way to the same extent? Do women feel it more strongly because we're worried about the already existing stereotype of us not being composers in as large numbers as men? I don't know. But I'd love to replicate this study with composers instead of scientists.
Posted by Sarah