Women in Space

Dr Mae Jemison. (Source)

This 12 September 2017 is the 25th anniversary of Dr Mae Jemison’s flight on space shuttle Endeavour as the first Black American woman to travel in space. Dr Jemison began her career as a physician who served in the Peace Corps, before making history as an astronaut. To celebrate Dr Jamison’s achievements, let’s take a look at her contributions and the trajectory of other iconic women in spaceflight.

While there have been many iconic women pioneers in space travel, their ascent has been a triumph over gender inequity. Up until the 1980s, the media largely focused on women astronauts’ looks, making disparaging jokes about their femininity getting in the way of their missions. Thus they ignored the mental and physical stamina required to go into this field, not to mention the high level of education demanded of astronauts, who are qualified scientists. For example, the first woman to travel in space in 1963, Dr Valentina Tereshkova, did so after acquiring a Phd in engineering.

Only 50 years a go, astronaut John Glenn dismissed the scientific qualifications of women astronauts using biological determinism. He told a USA Subcommittee: “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”


What to do When Facing YAMMM (Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting)

When University Of California (Davis) Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Professor Jonathan Eisen, was scheduled to speak at a meeting on Metagenomics in the Era of Big Data, he found himself in a bit of a pickle – or more to the point, a YAMMM. This stands for: yet another mostly male meeting. The male speakers outnumbered women 21:6. He considered his options. In the past, he has submitted a conference abstract in protest, A quantitative analysis of gender bias in quantitative biology meetings. He has also written to organisers and publicly called them out on their gender exclusion. This time, he considered not going, but then came up with a clever approach to tackling YAMMM.

YAMMM - Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting
Tackling YAMMM


Solvay Sequel: Nine Women Scientists in the White House

The iconic photograph of the 1927 Solvay conference featured 29 stellar physicists and chemists, including Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Only one, Marie Curie, was a woman. When Professor Teresa Giraldez came across a historical photograph of nine leading women scientists, she was intrigued.  Dated February 14th, 1980, this photograph marks a reception hosted by the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter (represented here by his Assistant Sarah Weddington). Here, Teresa tells us about the remarkable journey of these women who received high recognition at the White House.

Reception at the White House to nine American women scientists
PHOTO: Reception at the White House (Washington DC, USA) to nine American women scientists, dated on February the 14th, 1980. Left to right: Dr. Mary Good, Dr. Chien Shiung Wu, Dr. Janet Berry, Dr. Ariel Hollingshead, Sarah Weddington (assistant to President Carter), Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus, Dr. Elizabeth Crosby, Dr. Margaret O. Dayhoff, Dr. Mary Calderone and Dr. Charlotte Friend. The picture is dedicated “To Margaret Dayhoff, With best wishes, Sarah Weddington 2-14-80”.

The scientists portrayed in this picture were all born in the first quarter of the 20th century and many of them developed their career throughout extremely hard times: during or just after the Second World War (WWII). Interestingly (or should I say ‘sadly’?), tough times for society usually turn out into professional or social opportunities for women; this seems to be the case for some of the women in the picture. In the US, during WWII, the proportion of working women increased by about 15%. The reason for this increase was that many jobs, previously occupied solely by men, were now deserted–they had left to the war front. This situation was soon extended to the field of Science and Technology. For example, the United States Civil Commission, in its search for qualified personnel, “rebranded” many disciplines such as engineering (until then, mainly dominated by men). Thus, the Commission made it clear in its 1941 report that ”Feminine aptitudes may be well adapted to engineering design, testing, and inspection, research, preparation of plans and maps, and computation” (Calling women for federal war work, United States Civil Service Commission, 1941). However, most historians agree that this apparently auspicious achievement must be taken with a grain of salt: these women scientists were mostly hired in positions “according to their femininity”, often in lower level jobs and always as subordinates in the research teams performing research projects during the War. In most cases, it was expected that, after the War was over, they would stop working to go back to their ‘home duties’ (1, 2). While many women were hired during those years, only a few were recognized.


“If You See/Hear Something, Say Something”

Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe is the founder of STEM Women and is a science communicator with a background in molecular biology and cancer research. Buddhini has authored a series of articles in Scientific American, titled “The Hallmarks of Cancer.” She provides science outreach through broadcasts on YouTube. Her science writing can be found at JargonwallConnect with Buddhini on Google+ or on Twitter @DrHalfPintBuddy

Last Monday I had the pleasure of attending a private event organised by Digital Science. It was a round-table discussion on what inclusivity looks like in STEM, led by the lovely Amarjit Myers and Laura Wheeler. I got to meet some insightful people who had great ideas for how we can move this conversation forward. We also looked at the ever-present issue of sexual harassment in academia. With Ada Lovelace Day approaching, I wanted to write down some thoughts I had on this broad topic.

Connecting with such a broad group of women, in diverse disciplines, all passionate about the same cause made me realise how easy it is in this day and age to ‘find your tribe’ online. We have so much access to communities and support, various networks and organisations (such as this one!) that help us navigate a system that has always had structural biases that disadvantage women and people of colour. It made me consider an earlier time, and how isolated and alone a woman in STEM would have felt navigating this. Many conversations with my own mother, who is now a retired professor of Chemistry, make me appreciate how much the environment seems to have changed.


Is the Gender Gap Solved in Liberal Sweden?

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede is a professor and division head of Chemical Biology at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden. In this post, Professor Wittung-Stafshede goes beyond the progressive nation’s gender policies, to examine the everyday and institutional sexism experienced by women in science. 

Sweden is considered one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. We have the longest paid maternity leave in the world (16 months), and at least three of these months must be taken out by the dad. Sweden has free daycare, schools (including university), and afterschool programs. Swedes are very liberal in terms of household duties: men and women share a lot of responsibilities, and there are no stay-at-home moms. Based on this culture, I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken.

I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken. - Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede
I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken. – Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede


Same Auld Lang Syne: Dearth of Diversity in 2016 American Chemical Society Awards

Four days into the new year and it’s déjà vu all over again. The American Chemical Society (ACS), which has 158,000 members, just announced its 2016 National Award winners. Once again, gender inequity and lack of diversity are glaringly apparent:  95% of awardees are men, and a higher proportion present as White.

The Society only includes one award to promote women, the ACS Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences, awarded this year to Dr Carol Fierke.

The ACS data show that men are overrepresented not only in award nominations, but also in award success whereas women are underrepresented:

“In the 2015 nominee pool, 83% are male and 17% are female compared to ACS membership demographics of 71% male and 29% female.”

Why is this important? Awards and prizes are widely accepted markers of professional achievement that influence salary, promotion and tenure decisions, to shape and advance careers. The typical explanation for the dearth in gender diversity in award line-ups is that of a pipeline problem, with the prediction being that as more women join STEM fields and make their way up the academic ladder, their share of prizes will concomitantly increase. But this has not happened: contrary to the pipeline hypothesis, women’s share of prestigious awards has fallen in the past decade, compared to the decade before [1]. Closer analysis shows that women receive a disproportionate share of teaching and service awards, at the expense of prizes that recognise research contributions. This is known as The Matilda Effect. (more…)

Promoting STEM Women: How Scientific Societies Can Help

We spoke with Professors Rajini Rao and Gabriela Popescu who are outgoing and incoming chairs, respectively, of the Committee on Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW) in the Biophysical Society

1. Gabriela, the Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women is about 40 years old.  Can you briefly tell us about the history of CPOW and its significance for the Biophysical Society at the time?

GP: When the Biophysical Society was founded around the middle of the last century, following WWII, very few of the ~500 attendees were women and none were in leadership positions. This changed in the early seventies when Margaret Oakley Dayhoff, a pioneer in bioinformatics, became Secretary for the Society. Under her leadership, the CPOW was chartered for “increasing recognition and opportunities for women biophysicists”. Shortly after, the Society elected its first woman President. The timing was not a coincidence! Since then CPOW has worked to elevate many women scientists to leadership positions and supported the career development of both men and women biophysicists. The Biophysical Society currently serves over 9000 diverse professional scientists drawn from academia, industry and government agencies world wide.

2. Rajini, you chaired this committee for nearly a decade. Tell us how you got involved, and why?

RR: While serving as an elected member on the Biophysical Society council, I couldn’t help but notice the poor representation of women scientists in society awards. When I subsequently met the chair of the Awards committee and looked at the underlying numbers, I realized that the problem was that few women applied, even when the award was for women only!  So I joined the CPOW committee where we identified and directly lobbied high quality candidates for awards. Women who self-promote their careers are perceived as being “pushy” and may be unfairly penalized. By mediating on their behalf, we removed this impediment. As a result of our efforts, the number of women receiving awards has increased, and we also have more women serving on the Awards committee.

Women who self-promote their careers are perceived as being pushy” & may be unfairly penalized. By mediating on their behalf scientific societies remove this impediment. - Prof. Rajini Rao, Physiology
Women who self-promote their careers are perceived as being pushy” & may be unfairly penalized. By mediating on their behalf scientific societies remove this impediment. – Prof. Rajini Rao, Physiology


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