Happy International Women's Day!
Did anyone see this article making its way around social media lately? Eileen Pollack, a professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan with a degree in Physics from Yale University (I know, art and science together!), explored some possible reasons for why there are so few women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
While Eileen points out many clear concerns and possible explanations for the stark, and extremely problematic, gender inequality in the sciences, I feel like there's one more thing to point out.
First of all, I HIGHLY recommend reading the original article, and checking out Eileen's personal website for more information on her background and experiences. Since the article is a tad long though, I want to give you the TLDR version...starting with a quote from the article:
"...physicists, chemists, and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist
Wait, what? That can't be true, right? Actually...Yale published a study that shows there is indeed a strong bias against women in the sciences. Another study released more data showing that as students progress in the sciences, men continue to outnumber women, especially after high school, and it's NOT because boys generally have better spatial skills as some will inevitably continue to argue.
Thankfully, GoldieBlox is changing that. :)
Let's think about this statistically for a minute. Why wouldn't we want there to be equal numbers of men and women? If we continue to weed out the women with the same qualifications as their male counterparts, we will have to digger deeper into the male population to find enough men to fill all the positions in STEM fields.
So if it's not something we're born with, then what is it?
Eileen quotes another article on gender discrimination in the sciences, written for the Washington post by Dr. Meg Urry, an astrophysicist and professor for the physics department at Yale:
"Discrimination...isn't an abrupt slap in the face. It's the slow drumbeat of being underappreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks
When I first read that, I thought, "No way! I love science, I'm confident, and there's no way my work being underappreciated, or me feeling a little uncomfortable could make me stop science-ing." I'm constantly reminded by stubborn thoughts like these that my parents did a really good job at teaching me that I can do anything I put my mind to, no matter what anyone says or does. But, when I started to really think about it...about how the path to becoming a scientist differs from some other professions where women make up more than half the work force, it's hard not to think "well, maybe it is something about the way we are treated along the way." Every now and then, I notice one of those slap-in-the-face kind of moments. A couple of weeks ago, I had a professor call me "babe" in class. Even though I noticed it right away, and I knew it was inappropriate (and kinda creepy), I felt this overwhelming pressure to avoid conflict, not "overreact", and suppress my emotions (because OBVIOUSLY women are too emotional - yes, that was sarcasm). Eileen noticed some of these same pressures during her visits to various universities around the country, where she spoke with countless women in STEM that have encountered similar situations.
"...the pressures to be conventionally feminine seem even
She goes on to talk about the very real stereotypes that have permeated into pop culture (Less "Big Bang Theory", More Dana Scully), summarizes how young boys are encouraged to continue in science by parents and teachers while girls are not, comments on the lack of self esteem that many women develop throughout a career in a STEM field, and describes some of reasons for why it's during college where all this gender disparity starts to really show in the numbers, and only gets worse after graduation.
In an interview with Jo Handelsman, one of the authors from the Yale study concerning implicit gender bias, Eileen points out the findings that Handelsman found most troubling:
"If you add up all the little interactions a student goes through with a professor -- asking questions after class, an adviser recommending which courses to take or suggesting what a student might do for the coming summer, whether he or she should apply for a research program, whether to go on to graduate school -- all those mini-interactions that students use to gauge what [professors] think of them so they'll know whether to go on or not...Mentoring, advising, discussing -- all the little kicks that women get, as opposed to all the responses men get that make them feel more a part of the party."
Before reading this article, I had never really considered the impact those day-to-day mentoring interactions can have on a student. In 4th grade, I remember science class becoming my favorite when we were learning about sea kelp, wetlands, and the food chain from Mrs. Trummel. Then in middle school, it was Mrs. Olsen who encouraged me to join Science Olympiad where I found out science can be found, literally, everywhere. In high school, it was Mrs. Brockland who said I should take AP Chemistry with the seniors even though I was a junior, and in college Dr. Cora Lind and Dr. Nina McClleland pushed me to be at the top of my class. What do all these mentors have in common?
It wasn't until graduate school that I realized how integral each of these women were to my growth as a scientist. In fact, how integral female role models are in general to recruiting more women to STEM fields (read this, and this). These women meant that I always had that role model--that someone I could look up to and see a possible future in--there to mentor and encourage me to continue in the sciences. Although I haven't yet found my next female role model (they're harder to find the further you get into a STEM career), thankfully there's a great group of impressive, strong, female PhD students in my graduate program that are great at supporting each other. :)
"...the most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science
It's this message of encouragement, having someone there to tell you "keep going," that I felt Eileen really emphasized in her article. Data suggests that more often than not, women don't have the role models I was lucky enough to encounter throughout my education. At every step of the way to becoming a scientist, they don't receive enough encouragement or are actually discouraged from continuing on in the sciences. Instead of it being an issue of biology or history, there is now overwhelming evidence that the larger reasons men continue to outnumber women in STEM fields--social and environmental factors--are nearly entirely dependent on culture.
"...a culture that teaches girls math isn't cool and no one will date them if they excel in physics; a culture in which professors rarely encourage their female students to continue on for advanced degrees; a culture in which success in graduate school is a matter of isolation, competition and ridiculously long hours in the lab; a culture in which female scientists are hired less frequently than men, earn less money, and are allotted fewer resources."
One more thing...
...that I felt could have been brought up for further conversation, is the importance of the interactions between the women in STEM themselves. Handelsman points out that in her study of implicit gender bias, the women were just as guilty as the men of choosing a male job applicant over a female applicant with the same qualifications. And NO, this is NOT me saying "we're our own worst enemy." But, with all this "leaning in" we're supposed to be doing, and already feeling at a slight disadvantage from the start because of all the data summarized above, a relationship between the few women who study and work together in a STEM field can quickly become a competitive one. It doesn't have to be though, and honestly, it shouldn't.
Don't get me wrong, a little competition can be extremely motivating. But, it can also be debilitating and counterproductive to the supportive and encouraging atmosphere that's required for advancing equality for women in STEM. We end up competing with one another instead of lifting each other up so that we all (and future women in STEM) succeed. With all of the facts that point to our increased lack of self esteem as we progress in STEM, our inaccurate assessment of our achievements, and our misperceptions as to who does or doesn't belong, we need to start raising awareness of these issues among ourselves too. Instead of waiting for the culture to change, we can work together, and be part of the group to make it change.
And...maybe instead of looking to others for that extra push, which may actually be a cause of that competition in the first place, look to the one person you know you can trust, the one person who knows exactly what you want, the one person that is driven to succeed in exactly what you want to do. YOU! Figure out what motivates you to do what you do, write it down, and keep it in your desk, purse, and nightstand. Keep reminding yourself that you deserve every ounce of success that you have earned, and that your dreams and goals are worth fighting for. Don't give up on you.
As you read through some of the linked articles and reports, it can seem rather disheartening, but, it's not all bad news! We are making progress. And there are lots of women who have already made their mark! I will be inviting some of these fellow female scientists to post their stories here this month in honor of Women's History Month. Please feel free to leave comments or questions for our guest bloggers, I'll be sure they get them! And let me know if you're interested in sharing YOUR story too!
What are some of the reasons you think there aren't more women in science?
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
Questions to Ask Before Choosing Grad Program
First Semester of Grad School
Field Work in Alaska
Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
Women in STEM Series
Things I've Learned in Grad School Series
Blogs I Follow
Mass Spectrometry Blog
The Grad Student Way
Anthony's Science Blog
The Thesis Whisperer
Fossils and Shit
Science Communication Breakdown
Science Communication Media
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.