STEM and Sexism: Pedagogical Responses to “Chilly Climates” by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergRecently, a friend of mine sent me a journal article entitled, “Are STEM Syllabi Gendered? A Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis,” and a response to the research from a rather conservative publication, the National Review: “Female Researcher: We Must Make STEM Courses ‘Less Competitive’ to be more ‘Inclusive’ of Women.” Not a feminist or feminist scholar himself, his question to me was whether or not the author of the original research article, Laura Parson, was sexist and/or racist for suggesting that course syllabi needed to be, or rather sound, less “difficult,” less competitive, etc.

For those of you who don’t know, STEM educations refers to education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; and within the United States, women are significantly underrepresented within these fields. I share these articles and my friend’s question in this blog because I believe there is a common misconception that feminist and other liberative educators are arguing that we need to make courses “easier” or “less intimidating” in order to create inclusion. The implication here, that somehow women and/or people of color need an easier course, can be understood as a sexist and racist assertion of inferiority. However, this common critique misses its own investment in kyriarchal codes. Conflating masculinist pedagogical practices with academic rigor, this circular logic redirects the responsibility for inclusion onto the oppressed themselves as though the supposedly “intimidated minority,” is deficient, not the exclusivist language and practices that reinscribe power for particular people and particular ways of being.

Western education isn’t sexist, racist or colonialist because we ‘add’ a few sexists, racists and colonialists and ‘stir’ them into a neutral system—there is no value neutral education. Laura Parson’s work engages the patriarchal structure of education, analyzing syllabi from a poststructuralist lens in order to see how they contribute to what other researchers have identified as “chilly climates,” in STEM fields, or “an environment that is male-normed, highly impersonal, and individualistic, [that] leads to a classroom environment that is not welcoming, inclusive or supportive of women” (Parson, 106). It is an interesting piece that closely reads directive and descriptive language, assignments and subtext to reveal gender biases and androcentrism within the text of syllabi.

What follows is a shortened and slightly edited portion of the response I sent to my friend:

The problem that the article addresses is the idea that the Western academy (and STEM syllabi) tends to use a kind of language that reinforces white, male, heterosexual, European and American power.  For example, there is a commonly held idea that rational knowledge is superior to emotional knowledge.  Rationality, in traditional [Euro-American] gender roles, tends to be associated with men, and emotionality, women; thus, men are then concluded to ‘tend to have’ superior ways of knowing than women.  Another example: independence tends to be privileged in our country over dependence. Men are stereotyped as more independent and less relational (and dependent) than women.  Now, you may be thinking, “but I know plenty of independent and rational women.” Yes, of course.  These are ‘stereotypes.’  However, they are also parts of the way our society constructs gender, and so, like it or not, each sex tends to be taught this way of being (whether it fits into who they authentically are or not), and society polices this behavior.  (Hence, independent, rational women who are outspoken are often called bitches for doing so. They are being told that they are violating the gender role that society wants them to have).

I cannot emphasize enough that gendered, classed, racialized behavior is policed—and breaking out of the molds society sets for you can be extremely difficult, and often means that you have to engage a “chilly environment,” to do so.

So, why are this article and the National Review article so keen on discussing how competitiveness in classrooms might dissuade women from participation in STEM fields?

Well, high competition, particularly in classroom settings [and with men], is a gendered characteristic…. 

A landmark study called In A Different Voice, by Carol Gilligan studied how women, whether because of biology or social construction (that’s another argument), tend to know differently than men: more relationally really. [She does this to demonstrate how particular theories of moral development that suggested that women were morally inferior were actually deficient theories, having excluded women and their experiences.]

In her book, Gilligan discusses one study that found that boys tended to play more competitive games, and easily resolved conflicts that arose. Girls, playing different games, would stop a game if conflict surfaced.  This could be read to say that girls don’t like competition and avoid conflict, while boys are better at resolving conflict (so reinforcing sexist ideology).  However, a feminist analysis of this data pointed to the ways in which the girls emphasized relationship over the game itself.  The same analysis pointed to the idea that boy’s games often mimicked what a boy needed to learn to become good at corporate capitalism, while girl’s games tended to reinforce traditional feminine roles like wife and mother.  The idea here: girls are taught that it is unfeminine, unladylike, or unwomanly to be competitive in certain arenas.

Imagine you are girl who is really good at math, but she is also told, subtly, all her life, that if she gets too competitive (with men in particular), then she’s not a real woman. Now, enter a classroom where you have to be extremely competitive within a room of mostly boys who were taught that being competitive makes them into better men, while your engagement within that classroom not only violates the subtle messages you were taught, but is also seen by these other men to make you less of a woman as well.  Sound a bit “chilly?”  It does to me: you have to overcome the gendered restrictions you have already internalized, while also combating the gendered attitudes (conscious or unconscious) of everyone else in the room.

I will give parallel examples: 

  • Like her or not, Hillary Clinton is often critiqued for ‘being too man-ish.’
  • Media sensationalize and mock depictions of highly competitive women in shows like “The Real Housewives of….”, or, alternatively, often depict competitive women as evil or plotting characters, showing them as jealous rather than competitive.
  • In the recent show, “Madam Secretary,” the female secretary of State technically has a more important job than her husband (so might be seen as ‘beating him’ at the competition). The show seems to ‘apologize’ or ‘correct’ for this by having her refer to her husband as a “world renown scholar” repeatedly, by showing him help his wife to solve state crisis through his scholarly intervention, and even by reactivating his status as a CIA agent for a few episodes. How many shows depicting male politicians go to such lengths to prove that the politician’s wife is still important or a contributing member of society (or of a marriage)? 

Liberative pedagogy, which is not just about women’s education, is geared towards practices, language, etc. that makes students more empowered.  It helps them to see themselves as subjects who participate in knowledge-making, rather than objects who are given and must reproduce the supposedly objective knowledge that privileges the values, ways of being, and ways of knowing of the dominant culture.

Another way to put this: there is nothing inherently competitive about the study of mathematics.  The classroom is competitive in order to create a particular kind of graduate—one who engages in a particular [dominant] culture.  Liberative pedagogy challenges the ways that classrooms are run in order to challenge the dominant culture.

Many readers of will be familiar with the arguments I made here. Yet, as critiques like that of the National Review are common place within our society, I post these thoughts to help break down the idea that somehow liberative education is about making things “easier.” In fact, liberative education that seeks to deconstruct kyriarchal codes is often extremely challenging for students and for teachers.


Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: Academics, Academy, college, Education, General, Power relations

Tags: , , ,

11 replies

  1. Very interesting. Back in the olden days, when I was in school, the humanities were highly gendered. But in my Ph.D. graduating class? Guess what–the only candidates to graduate with straight A’s were two women! So much for male superiority. (I guess.) But maybe not much has changed in the academy.


    • I think it is both interesting and sad how it now tends to play out in terms of ‘which kinds of courses.’

      I am thinking here of Carol’s discussions about the gendered nature of religious studies when she was in graduate school as well– it is interesting now how the presence of women is taken for granted, where it took so much work to break into these fields.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century, just as science and technology did in the last century.” — I came across that prediction on a website called “STEM to STEAM” (the added “A” so as to include the Arts!!!) — I wonder if that’s possible?


  3. Excellent essay, Sara. Took me a long time to understand what you say in the following sentence: “Western education isn’t sexist, racist or colonialist because we ‘add’ a few sexists, racists and colonialists and ‘stir’ them into a neutral system—there is no value neutral education.”

    And am thinking of putting the following paragraph on my syllabus:

    “Liberative pedagogy, which is not just about women’s education, is geared towards practices, language, etc. that makes students more empowered. It helps them to see themselves as subjects who participate in knowledge-making, rather than objects who are given and must reproduce the supposedly objective knowledge that privileges the values, ways of being, and ways of knowing of the dominant culture.”


    • Thank you Esther. I am touched that you would include my thoughts in your syllabus as well. I am glad these ideas really resonated with you and your work.


  4. Great article. I am interested in knowing how your friend responded when he read your note.


    • A great question!
      The response I sent to him was actually much longer; but I cut it down here for the sake of space and framing for this blog.

      He actually didn’t respond to the return email. Next time I see him in person perhaps we will discuss this, but I guess I’ll find out. I read the response to my husband though, and he seemed to appreciate it/ find it interesting.


  5. Excellent analysis of institutionalized discrimination. Chilly, indeed.


Leave a Reply to Sara Frykenberg Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: