Women’s professional STEM societies are rethinking sexual diversity

men 2013, Nicole “Nic” Johnson earned a doctorate in psychology counseling and made the necessary rounds of academic conferences. “They were always very, a little cold and impersonal,” she said. “A very heady and ivory tower.” But that perception changed, she said, when she entered a Marriott hotel in Salt Lake City for a conference sponsored by the Association for Women in Psychology. “It was this beautiful space where everyone was viewed as equal and having something to offer.”

Recently, however, Johnson said she noted that not everyone feels welcome. Students and AWP members who are Transgender (their identity does not match their gender assigned at birth) or who are non-binary (their sexual expression or identity does not adhere to the traditional male-or-female opinion) told her, “‘ I don’t know is that a space for me. ‘”She wants the firm community to broaden their circle and embrace greater sexual diversity.

In an editorial published in this summer’s AWP newsletter, Johnson argued that removing “women” from the organization’s name would represent an important step toward inclusion. “I strongly believe that the liberation of women is linked to the destruction of the sexual binary and one way we as an organization can accept this call is to expand our focus beyond the binary notion of femininity,” she wrote.

To that end, the AWP is investigating members for their views on a name change and is considering adding a position of gender inclusion coordinator to the governing board.

But some members of the group, especially those who fought for women’s rights decades ago, vehemently oppose those developments. In a counterpoint published in the same newsletter, eight veteran AWP members defended the organization’s name as well as its focus. One of the co-authors is Oliva Espín, a psychologist and retired professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University. A member of AWP since she was in high school in 1973, Espín said no organization can be everything for all people. “Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean other people’s lives don’t matter,” she said. “It means we have to focus on that, because it’s something that is still needed.”

Women face problems of employment discrimination, bodily autonomy and lack of security specifically because they are women, she said. “With all this emphasis on accepting everyone, what you’re doing is diluting what the organization is about, and kind of denying the fact that women continue to be oppressed.”

Scientific understanding is evolving to recognize that both biological sex and the cultural construction of sex lie on a continuum. (See, for example, the September 2017 issue of Scientific American and a subsequent e-book on the new science of sex and gender.) And robust evidence supports the notion that racial, sexual, and cultural diversity leads to better science. But who should take the mantle of champion for people who are not represented by traditional academic and professional organizations?

Like Espín, my mother was one of the original women liberators. She worked as a secretary earning an academic degree in physical engineering in an all-male department. It was from her that I first heard the line from cartoonist Bob Thaves (paraphrased) that “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in high heels.” Should women’s organizations, still fighting for recognition in men’s fields, adapt to this new worldview by redefining themselves, I wondered? And will their own hard-earned identity be diminished if they do?


men 1969, a group of about 35 psychologists who were tired of what they perceived as the American Psychological Association’s lack of responsibility for the issues raised by the women’s liberation movement, founded a separate group that would become the Association for Women in Psychology. ). Four years later, the newborn AWP successfully lobbied for the creation of Division 35: the Society for the Psychology of Women within the APA. The APA now has more than 50 departments, or interest groups, including a division 44 on the psychology of sexual orientation and sexual diversity as well as a division 51 on men and masculinity.

Today, Division 35 and AWP still coexist peacefully with many members belonging to both organizations, said Division 35 president-elect Carrie Castañeda-Sound, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. However, one difference I have found between the two is that Division 35 is actively working to expand the population it serves. On the APA website, for example, division 35 leadership purposefully uses “womxn” to include feminists of various sexes. (“Womxn” and “womyn” – both pronounced “women” – are spellings intended to cut the word “women” from its patriarchal roots.)

That language, which is not consistent across their materials, is a sign of organization in transition, Castañeda-Sound said. “We’re in between yet.” How this looks to her as a cisgender woman (someone whose identity matches the gender and gender assigned at birth) empowers those with personal and research expertise on sexual diversity to use their voice. “Bending over to those difficult conversations was important,” she said.

“It forces us to rethink what feels ‘normal’,” she added.

The common thread that links Division 35’s diverse membership, Castañeda-Sound said, is intersectional feminism, the idea that discrimination based on race, class, gender, and sexuality interacts to reinforce inequality. For example, she points to the group’s leadership following Texas ’controversial abortion ban, which bans abortions for six weeks now, reminding mental providers that non-binaries and transgender people can also have uteruses. “Broadening that discussion to say that doesn’t just affect cisgender women,” she said.

I screened websites and emailed representatives from more than a dozen organizations for women in science to see if other groups were equally considering their identity. Although most organizations focus on girls and women, I have found some indications of change. The Association for Women in Mathematics, for example, is committed to “providing a supportive community for all self-identified cis- or transgender women and, more generally, for non-binary or sexually nonconforming individuals.”

Women Graduates in Science, an international nonprofit, did respond by saying the organization is changing its initials to GWIS +, removing sexual language from its regulations, and fundraising for fellowships to support anyone whose gender has influenced their participation in science. And although the National Science Foundation’s Advance program is nominally targeted at women, its criteria for awarding grants are broader. “The ADVANCE program accepts proposals that work to create institutions fair to all genders of STEM. [science, technology, engineering, and math] faculty, “chief program officer Jessie DeAro wrote in a statement to Undark.

In her dissertation research, Andrea Haverkamp, ​​who recently completed a doctorate in environmental engineering with a minor in odd studies at Oregon State University, found that trans and non-binary people identified the Society of Women Engineers as one of the least inclusive professional organizations. Engineering is a conservative, male-dominated field, she said, and SWE has resisted efforts to allow non-binary people to apply for scholarships.

However, even at SWE, times change. The Hawaiian Islands chapter recently teamed up with the Hawai’i Community Fund to endow a scholarship supporting all underrepresented sexes, including Indigenous Hawaiian Māhū, sexual nonconforming people recognized since ancient times in Polynesian cultures. SWE did not respond to a request for comment before the deadline.


Ais a doctoral student in counseling psychology at Lehigh University, Meg Credit is at a similar point in their pre-professional career as Nic Johnson when she discovered AWP’s welcoming community. But Credit, who is a genderqueer – that is, does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions – and uses they / they pronouns, does not think the organization is right for them. “I would be much more interested in joining a group that has a broader definition of gender inclusion,” they said.

Johnson is their advisor, so Credit admits they may be partisan, but nonetheless, agrees that it might be helpful for AWP to change its name. “What I’m struggling with is why not?” they said. “Why not be more inclusive in the language we use?” At the same time, Credit acknowledges that language can be incredibly challenging – the term “womxn” is controversial, for example. Credit cares more about a group’s intentions. “Do their goals match greater inclusion?” they asked. “Or is it just a performance thing?”

The AWP is welcome by all and one of its core goals is equality, Espín said, but the group’s intention has always been to support men who identify as women. “If you’re not a woman, create your own organization,” she said. “Don’t come in here to say ‘you women have to change your name because I’m here’.”

Both Espín and Johnson concede that older and younger people tend to look at AWP’s mission differently. Younger women don’t appreciate how much harder it was for a woman to do ordinary things, Espín said. “That it was not possible to have a credit card or a bank account or a mortgage to buy a house.” Until the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974, lenders often denied credit to women, especially if they were not married. It was not easy to change discriminatory practices, Espín said. And “it’s not completely changed yet.”

Pushing the group beyond its focus on women does not mean that society has achieved gender equality, Johnson said. “Quite the opposite,” she said. “In my opinion, the way for us to achieve sexual liberation is to really be more inclusive in how we talk about sex and who we include in the conversation.”

I thought of my mother, doubly charged as a woman and a single parent, navigating a career in the sciences. Why is Division 35’s job to deal with complex sexual issues? I asked Castaneda-Sound. Are you losing anything by broadening your research and support beyond women? “I think it’s empowering,” she told me. “Feminist psychology has always been taken as an analysis of power. And in a society where there is power and privilege that comes with certain identities, I think we have to face that head.”

Haverkamp said her research convinced her that groups specifically focused on women and girls are in fact counterproductive because they define women by what they are not – that is, men – and continue centuries of judgments about bodies and abilities. “It doesn’t address the issue of sex directly,” she said. “And it’s, in fact, just to accept that ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus,’ when we know that’s a very old-fashioned and archaic way of looking at sex in society.”

As a physicist and later a science journalist, I certainly benefited from pioneers like my mother who came before me. But talking to people whose identity doesn’t fit in one of two checkboxes, I’ve found that gratitude to my ancestors doesn’t mean I can’t work with all kinds of people to continue to break down barriers in terms of gender. What if it weren’t just Fred and Ginger, locked in the push-pull of intricate choreography, but a whole room full of talented people dancing their hearts out?

So, are women’s organizations the right place to work for greater sexual diversity? I asked Haverkamp. She repeated the question and let it echo for a moment. “Either, yes, women advocate for greater sexual diversity, or not, women close the door, and they say we have our marginal interest in the system, you find out for yourself,” she said. “The most feminist answer would be ‘yes’ – to welcome and advocate for the full, free, liberated range of sexual expressions and incarnations in STEM.”

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