A useful acronym

The e-bulletin “This Week in Psychological Science” (from the Association for Psychological Science) for today announces the article:

Seeking Congruity Between Goals and Roles: A New Look at Why Women Opt Out of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers
Amanda B. Diekman, Elizabeth R. Brown, Amanda M. Johnston, and Emily K. Clark

Notice “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”, putting together four fields of study and career areas that constitute a folk taxon — we think of these things as together constituting some sort of conceptual unit — that has no fixed label (but is referred to only by enumerations like this one, or by “Scientists and Technical Professionals” in the name of NOGLSTP, the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals”, or by “Science and Engineering” or “Science and Mathematics” in the titles of numerous organizations and events).

But you don’t have to go on talking cumbersomely about “science, technology, engineering and mathematics” when in fact the useful acronym STEM is available, as in the abstract for the article:

Women remain underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Male and female volunteers completed questionnaires rating career interests and goals and previous experiences with mathematics and science. Results suggest that STEM careers, relative to other careers, were perceived to impede communal goals (e.g., helping other people). In addition, volunteers endorsing communal goals were less interested in STEM careers than were volunteers not endorsing communal goals. Such perceptions may disproportionately affect women’s career decisions, because women tend to endorse communal goals more than do men.

I’m not claiming that the acronym is original with these authors. I don’t know the facts of the matter, and they’re not really relevant to my point here, which is only that people sometimes show ingenuity in devising labels for unlabeled folk taxa.

This isn’t a posting about the content of the article, though that’s also of interest to me, since I have a STEM daughter. (Note that STEM shifts from a conjunctive reading to a disjunctive one in this context. Elizabeth is certainly in T, in E as well by some people’s reckoning, but not, professionally, in M or S.)

5 Responses to “A useful acronym”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    The automatically generated links that WordPress creates lead me to what I suppose is predictable complaint that using STEM leads people to disregard the important differences between the four areas, as here.

    Surely, sometimes you want to lump the four areas together, sometimes you want to treat them separately, so it’s useful to be able to do either succinctly. Rejecting more “abstract” terms — those for higher-level taxa — is foolish as a general principle; it would force us to talk at the most absurd levels of specificity. That would be Be Specific run amok. (Why use words? Why not just carry the things around in a big bag and point at them?)

    But it all depends on context. It would be equally foolish to talk at the highest level of generality available to us. We should frame our talk at the level of generality most appropriate for the context in hand and the audience in question.

    There may well be people who see S, T, E, and M as “all the same thing”, though that view is open to them whether or not a label like STEM is available to them. Then when they come across the label, they’ll embrace it as a good fit to their beliefs. And of course people hearing and using STEM on some occasion will be encouraged not to think, on that occasion, about the differences between S, T, E, and M, and that could be unfortunate — but that’s an observation as much about the occasion as about the expressions of the language.

  2. lynneguist Says:

    STEM is very big as an acronym in the UK, where the government is the major funder of universities and their research and controls the number of students at universities. STEM subjects are prioritized for funding and student places.

    Here are a couple of instances of the acronym in context from the THE (formerly Times Higher Education supplement):

    STEM focus is an economic own goal, LSE head warns

    The wrong kind of STEM: UK needs fewer psychologists and more physicists

  3. Jeff Shaumeyer Says:

    I imagine that these authors used those words in that sequence so that they would align with “STEM”, which has been used by the National Science Foundation for quite a few years to refer to these technical disciplines, which they often consider as a group. I can see the reason to distinguish all these and the various subdisciplines, but I’d also like a useful way to refer to all of them in my work, and STEM seems the best anyone has on offer for that.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    I suppose I should have made this sledge-hammer clear: I am not claiming to have made some exciting observation of a new phenomenon. All I was saying was that it was (as far as I can recall) new to me, and, much more important (after all, who should give a damn whether I happen to have come across the usage before?), that it was a useful coinage, no matter who first made it, how long it’s it around, or how widespread it might be in some contexts (which I was unaware of).

  5. lynneguist Says:

    Oh, I thought that was clear–wasn’t trying to say who’d made it up, just that it’s v popular in some circles–and no matter how useful it is, those who aren’t part of STEM are up for the sledgehammer in these parts. 🙁

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