The Five Stages of Disbelief

Recently, I read a “Brainstorm” column by Diane Auer Jones in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Are Women Partly to Blame for the Gender Gap in STEM Fields?” a response to the AAUW’s research publication, Why so Few? Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Immediately upon finishing this column, I began to experience intense emotions with which I was unfamiliar. Surely a simple opinion piece outlining perceived flaws in a research publication shouldn’t send me off the deep end, should it?

Through the haze of red that was clouding both my eyes and brain, I began to search for answers. In my research, I rediscovered Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on grief and loss. As many of you know, Dr. Kubler-Ross developed the stages of grief model, which she outlined in her 1969 book entitled On Death and Dying. As a result of her work, millions of people trying to cope with a profound loss were able to define what they were feeling. In short, people began to realize that their feelings were normal.

After brushing up on my Kubler-Ross, I realized that even though I had not experienced a death or major personal loss, I was nonetheless experiencing a similar phenomenon. After considerable reflection and significant deep breathing, I came to the conclusion I was exhibiting a variation of Kubler-Ross’ model, which I have named the Five Stages of Disbelief. Let me explain.

Stage 1: Denial – As I was reading Ms. Auer Jones’ article, I found myself initially in a state of shock. I couldn’t believe that a woman of Ms. Auer Jones’s standing was stating publically that the research conducted by the AAUW research team on the gap found in STEM fields between men and women was somehow the fault of women. Sure she discussed the issue of female misogynists –women who intentionally sabotage or hold back other women for their own gain – but her continued use of anecdotal information in an attempt to undermine valid research was astonishing to me. “This cannot be true,” I told myself. “Is it April 1st already? There has to be some mistake.” Sadly, it wasn’t a mistake. Now that I could no longer deny the column’s message, I was forced to move to the next stage.

Stage 2: Anger – Remember that red I was speaking about earlier? When I finally realized that Ms. Auer Jones truly meant what she said and gone the extra mile to share this belief with the rest of us, I was mad. I don’t just mean I was a “you-cut-me-off-in-traffic-so-I’m-a-bit-grumpy” mad. No – I was livid. Not only was this Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education lambasting the authors of the AAUW report for their conclusions, she managed to devalue both a thoroughly researched report and the unique experiences of the women involved in this study at the same time. While on the one hand I marveled at this feat, my anger was all consuming. It took me a considerable amount of time to work through my anger so I could move on to Stage 3 without hurting myself or others.

Stage 3: Bargaining – At this point, I entered into what I like to call “internal bargaining”. I began thinking, “You know, perhaps she’s just bringing up the counter point of view in an attempt to spark discussion on the subject. Or maybe she’s pointing out cracks or flaws in the study that truly do need further study. I’ll read it again, and I’m sure I’ll be able to make sense out of this post.” Wrong. I read it again, and the words were still there, in the same order, and conveying the same message. Women had perpetuated this gap. There was no acknowledgement of the systemic issues perpetuating this phenomenon; rather, Ms. Auer Jones states that the report “serves only to regurgitate age-old accusations and assumptions”. Could it be that these accusations are “age-old” because they have persisted for so long? How could a woman such as Ms. Jones – a scientist! – not see these issues for what they are? I was no longer angry. I was sad.

Stage 4: Depression – Scratch that – I wasn’t just sad. I was depressed. I was depressed that a well educated, successful woman professional from the science field would consider ignoring the long-standing systemic privilege afforded men in the STEM fields. I was saddened that a woman trained in scientific analysis not only based her conclusions on her own singular experiences, but chose to convey her opinion in an attempt to undermine a well-researched study by the original champions of equity for women and girls, the AAUW. And I was depressed that in her column Ms. Auer Jones legitimized decades of discriminatory practices, systems of microexclusions and structures of patriarchal power. I was stuck in my sadness. I couldn’t pull myself out of my downward spiral.

Stage 5: Acceptance – This stage was challenging for me. Even in my depression, I knew acceptance of Ms. Auer Jones’ work wasn’t an option. Her column contained too many statements of fact based on anecdotal information. She not only contradicted but failed to reference reams of additional research in academe, government and the corporate world about the existence of environmental and structural factors that continued to preserve and widen the STEM gap for women. I had to accept something – but it wouldn’t be Ms. Auer Jones’ opinion.

What I have decided to accept is some level of responsibility, but not in the manner to which Ms. Auer Jones’ suggests. I accept responsibility for speaking out against opinion pieces such as this. To that end, here and now I publically support the AAUW and their findings. I support the countless studies conducted by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, the Department of Labor, and in the science, technological, engineering, education and mathematical fields all supporting the causes, existence and persistence of this gap. I support the development and implementation of early support for girls in math and science, and of mentor programs for women in college who choose to enter the STEM fields. In short, I acknowledge the existence of the gap, accept that there are multiple factors causing the gap, and I accept my responsibility as an educator to help close it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do have to confess something. There is one area on which Ms. Auer Jones and I do agree. Women do have some role in the perpetuation of this inequity – but only when we sit idly by and allow columns and ideas like Ms. Auer Jones’s to remain unchallenged. That is something I will never accept.

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