Sexism and the city: The dark side of STEM group projects

There's always a twisted side to group projects...

Ollie Withers
9th May 2023
Image Credit: Pixaby

Group projects are as crucial to uni life as lectures, seminars, and the Phil Rob library. They are vital for the development of STEM students’ collaborative skills and often enable groups of students to produce projects far beyond what they would do normally. The ability to work as a team in a workplace is a key skill for employment, and often STEM group projects are extremely beneficial in preparing students for their workplace or placement year. However, as is the case with uni work, there’s a but. And it is a big one.

The typically limited supervision of a group project whilst it is being completed often leads to an imbalance in the workload. I’m sure you’ll agree there is nothing more frustrating than a “ghoster”, who leaves any request to meet up and discuss the project on read or delivered, and coasts to the same grade as the rest of the group, having put in the minimal effort themselves. And whilst a lot of subjects have a post-group project review system, by then it is too late, with a small number of individuals having done the work meant for everyone, typically at the significant cost of their own time, mental and physical wellbeing. Sound like a fair system?

A small number of individals do the work for everyone

However, leaving the oxygen thieves and ghosters behind, group projects often present the conditions for far uglier dynamics to emerge. Misogyny in STEM is a topic of a lot of discussion, but very little action, and group projects provide the perfect conditions in which it can thrive. Female STEM students at Newcastle University, who will remain anonymous, have reported that male members of the group assigned them the job of “making it look pretty”, having previously poured scorn on and belittled their work, for conceivably no reason other than their bigoted, outdated idea that women don’t belong in a lab or a workshop, and that the only thing they are fit for is to be aesthetic secretaries. On top of this scepticism, there is an increased notion that the women must somehow “prove themselves” with their work, and a laughable expectation that for a woman to be equal in this environment in their eyes, she must take up a disproportionate amount of work, which is as criminally unfair as it is a denial of what women have given to the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering.

Not just confined to the work balance itself, there is a culture of intimidation and laddish behaviour on the group chats set up to simulate a professional working environment, with prolific reports of patronising comments, verbal intimidation, and wholly inappropriate group chat names, highlighting the need for a strict and enforced behavioural code, and a total start-to-finish monitoring process of group projects.

Whilst I wish I was surprised and shocked at what I found out from the students, in any institution, cues are taken from the top. With the recent display at the NUSU Presidential Debates (covered previously in this paper), where the topic of sexual assault and spiking was met with laughs, victim-blaming, and a suggestion of “if they control their emotions, they can avoid these situations”, showing how breathtakingly out-of-touch the leadership candidates were, it is no wonder that situations such as the ones endured by the interviewed still persist. If the university wants to protect and enable a healthy environment for women to learn and tackle the disparity in STEM workplaces, they must implement a system that ensures that group projects are completed by the many, not the few.

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