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 Jargonwall. Connect 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.
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.
Cathy Newman gives a postgraduate student perspective on how local culture impacts on the careers of women in STEM, and why it’s important for women students to learn about the challenges of gender bias as part of their education and career planning.
Last month, the College of Science at Louisiana State University hosted a Women in STEMevent. The event consisted of a keynote address followed by a panel discussion, the latter of which I attended. All speakers were LSU alumni holding or retired from prominent STEM positions.
Panelists were the following:
Dr. Karen Adler Storthz: professor emerita at the University of Texas Health Science Center,
Sorcha Clary: project engineer for Marathon Petroleum.
Judea Goins-Andrews: director of school engagement for Louisiana at Project Lead the Way,
Rebecca Guidry: clinical medical physicist at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center,
Pat Bodin: former chief information officer and VP of global information for ExxonMobil.
As a graduate student in biology at a major research university, I rarely have the opportunity to interact with women in STEM careers outside of academia, so I especially appreciated that the panel included women in industry and education/outreach. The panel also spanned a wide range of career stages, from a few years out of college, to retired. Despite the wide range of careers and career stages represented on the panel, the advice to early career STEM women was remarkably consistent, emphasizing self-confidence, assertiveness, and patience.
I live tweeted the panel discussion. Here are some of the highlights.
Here is an examination of the scientific flaws in the recent New York Times (NYT) Op-Ed: “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist.” The Op-Ed authors, psychologists Professor Wendy Williams and Professor Stephen Ceci, put forward various wide-sweeping statements about the effect of gender on academic careers of women scientists. The article outlines the fact that women make up a minority of junior faculty members, particularly in maths-intensive fields like engineering and computer science (25%-30%) and an even smaller proportion in senior positions (7%-15%).
Williams and Ceci argue that much of the empirical studies that established gender inequality in academia are outdated (mostly published prior to the year 2000). They argue that more recent data show that inequality has been diminished in academia. The researchers claim that women are promoted and remunerated at the same rate as men – except in economics. Williams and Ceci further argue that women’s numbers have been steadily growing in the life sciences and psychology. They note that the proportion of women in maths-intensive fields has also been growing, but not as much. Their analysis attempts to explain why this is the case.
The central argument presented in their NYT article is that women would fare well in maths-intensive subjects, “if they choose to enter these fields in the first place.” To put it another way, the problem as they see it, is that gender inequality is a myth, and that the discrepancies between men and women would be reduced if women chose to stay in STEM.
The Op-Ed is based on the co-authors’ study published in November in the journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest. In their study, Ceci is first author and they are joined by two economists, Professor Donna Ginther and Professor Shulamit Kahn. The research team see that the sex variations within the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) represent a “contradiction” and a “paradox.” The logic of their argument is that because there are more women in STEM fields today in comparison to the 1970s, and because there are different patterns of attrition amongst various disciplines, this is evidence that sexism in academia is a moot point. The crux of their argument is simple: if there are differences between men and women’s career trajectories in STEM, these arise from personal preferences, and not due to a culture of sexism.
The are several problems with the Op-Ed, which overly simplifies the body of literature the authors reviewed, but the analysis of study itself is highly flawed. The most glaring issues include the concepts used, such as the authors’ confusion of sex and gender and how these relate to inequality. Another set of problems arise from the authors’ methods. Put simply: the way they measure gender inequality does not match the data they have available, and their interpretation and conclusions of the data are therefore invalid. In science, a study can be seen to be valid when the phenomenon measured matches the instruments used. The concepts, data collection and analysis need to match the authors’ research questions. This is not the case with this study.
Let’s start with the key concept the authors measured: gender inequality, which is also discussed as “academic sexism.”
In a New England pub after a conference, our male academic colleagues shrug their collective shoulders at the gender imbalance; in their opinion, women drop out of science because their hormones make them “different”. As women in science know all too well, similar examples of bias abound in academia. We read with familiar dismay, therefore, the arguments that girls find science “boring,” that attempts to bridge the gender divide “deny human biology and nature,” and that efforts to achieve gender equality in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields are doomed. Attributing the gender gap to biology misses the obvious contribution of societal and institutional biases.
The “girls are not interested in STEM” mantra is itself an example. Knowledge of a prejudicial stereotype can lead to enough anxiety that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although initially applied to racial bias in IQ tests, ‘stereotype threat’ can be extended to gender as well. Negative stereotypes are transmitted from parents and teachers to girls. Reminding girls that they are girls just before a math test can impede their performance. This effect can be seen in children as young as age five. The key point is that as adults, we are able to view stereotypes as generalisations about a group. Unfortunately, young children are more accepting of stereotypes, and may implicitly believe that girls are indeed poor at STEM subjects. As girls grow up, these stereotypes affect their identities as STEM professionals. So how do these stereotypes take shape?
The Draw a Scientist Test (DAST) shows that science stereotypes are socialised from an early age. The test has its origins in a pilot study from 1957, in which high school students were asked to describe their image of a scientist. Subsequent research from the 1960s onwards has examined a timeline of when this image is cemented. This research finds that children in kindergarten and the first grade are less likely to draw a stereotypical scientist; that is, a White man with facial hair, who wears a lab coat and glasses, and who is surrounded by lab equipment, formulae and books, making a “Eureka!” style exclamation. By the second grade, however, “the stereotype has began to take root,” due to a combination of how science is taught at school as well as through media images and social ideas and expectations that children pick up from parents, teachers and other influences. By the fifth grade, the stereotype is overwhelmingly fixed. A review study of 50 years worth of international research on the DAST demonstrates that, across cultures, “the stereotype of scientists being male has largely endured since 1957.” More specifically, the research shows that in Western cultures, this image is of a White male, even amongst minority students. However, children exposed to female scientists, via a combination of visits by women scientists in the classroom and by talks and readings about women’s contribution to science and their careers, are more likely to draw both women and men as scientists. Studies demonstrate that teachers themselves can contribute to these stereotypes, by giving boys more attention in class, and by rating their abilities higher than girls, even when girls get the same test scores as boys. Conversely, “intervention programs” for teachers, including career information and weekly visits by women researchers to the classroom, as well as short courses with follow-up visits, are subsequently less likely to result in stereotypical DAST results amongst students. This is because the teacher’s bias has been actively addressed, leading to the reinforcement of diversity in their teaching.
Despite the fact that people are socialised into believing that girls can’t do science, popular culture blames the individual; young girls are often chastised Don’t get your dress dirty, or Be careful, why don’t you hand that to your brother, as a recent viral video reminded us. If only girls were more confident. If only girls spoke up and asked more questions in class. If only they actively looked for mentors. Then they could easily overcome this stereotype threat and perform just as well as boys in STEM subjects. Unfortunately this “leaning in” viewpoint is naive because it ignores the institutional disadvantages contributing to the academic exclusion of women and minorities.
Sexual harassment is widespread in academic fieldwork. Women trainees are the primary targets with the perpetrators being predominantly senior professional males. Female undergraduates in male dominated fields report higher levels of sex discrimination, and are more likely to consider changing majors. Another study showed that high-achieving male biologists train fewer women than men in their laboratories, and that these men predominantly fill Assistant Professor slots in academia. In the same study, biomedical science male postdocs are 90% more likely than women to have an adviser who is a Nobel laureate. Not only is there a ‘leaky pipeline’ problem, the plumbing itself is broken.
It is social conditioning, unconscious biases and institutional practices that create an environment where girls feel unwelcome and insecure in STEM fields. UNESCO data show that women are disadvantaged in STEM, with only one in five nations achieving equality. But the cultural variation in itself tells us that it is socialisation and policy intervention, not biology, that matters. Research shows that institutional gender bias develops in several phases. First, children lack female scientist role models from primary school. Second, young undergraduates learn that science privileges a masculine culture, which makes it hard to imagine their career path. Third, diversity barriers are witnessed first-hand by early career researchers. Both male and female faculty are less willing to hire women applicants with the same credentials as men. Given these clear prejudices, we must move away from lazy explanations that attribute women’s under-representation in STEM to their biology. Instead, we must acknowledge that the system actively discourages women in ways both obvious and insidious. We must move away from the individual and address the broader narrative of everyday sexism.
Practical ways to tackle this problem include diversity training for hiring committees and better mentorship programmes for female graduate students and postdocs. Another avenue for change is to address stereotypes and their effects. Research mapping neurophysiology during tests on STEM subjects show that there are no cognitive differences in men and women’s performance in tests until stereotype threat is triggered. Women perform comparably well until they are reminded about their gender, at which point their working memory and performance are negatively impacted. When girls and women are made aware of their minority status, they become hypervigilant about negative feedback, discouraging them despite their success, even if they are high achievers. Professor Chad Forbes is a social neuroscientist from the University of Delaware who studies the impact of negative stereotypes on individuals. One aspect of his research is looking at different ways to combat stereotype threat. The most effective strategy remains acknowledging and understanding the existence of stereotype threat and addressing its consequences, such as through training. Active intervention at the institutional level also leads to positive change. Already, some colleges are reporting huge improvements: at Carnegie Mellon University, 40% of undergraduate incoming class in computer science are women, a welcome contrast to the dismal 18% of graduates in the U.S., and at Harvey Mudd College, more than half of the freshman engineering class this year were women. Their strategies ranged from featuring women on their brochures and as tour guides, to training teachers and hosting camps for high school students.
Why should we care if girls remain underrepresented in STEM? Apart from basic fairness, if we want our best and brightest working on innovative ideas and creative solutions, it makes little sense to potentially abandon half the population. We already face many hurdles; lack of funding, lack of jobs, and pushback from science denialists backed by populist politics. We need all hands on deck to forge ahead.
Professor Inger Mewburn is Director of Research Training at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on student experiences, which are used to inform University practices. We asked her about gender differences in the way men and women PhD students negotiate their relationships with their supervisors. Dr. Mewburn began by acknowledging that there is a dearth of female role models in academia and those that are there have tended to assume the dominant culture that is heavily masculinized. She then made a really interesting observation: during informal academic gatherings, women students find themselves in the kitchen!
Professor Julia Greer is a materials scientist at Caltech. Her research focuses on creating and studying lightweight nanomaterials. These nanomaterials have a wide range of applications, such as energy, construction, transport, prosthetics, and electronics. We spoke to Julia about her work, and also touched upon some of the challenges she faces as a woman in STEM. Watch the video below, or keep reading for a summary of our conversation!
Our guest post by Prof. Siromi Samarasinghe is part of our Role Model series. Siromi describes how she overcame cultural, social and financial hurdles to pursue a research career in tea chemistry at a time when it was highly unusual for women in Sri Lanka to obtain higher education.
For my tenth birthday my father gave me The Pictorial Encyclopaedia of Scientific Knowledge. He was a medical practitioner and was always encouraging me to read and learn about science. I found that book utterly fascinating; it shaped my lifelong passion for learning. It was my very first step on the road that led, decades later, to the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, and my present position on the tutorial staff of the Department of Chemistry.
From that book I learned about the diversity of the plant and animal kingdoms, about rocks and minerals and the Solar System. Another book I loved to read was A Hundred Great Lives, about great scientists and their achievements. I imagined myself making great discoveries and dreamed of becoming a great scientist some day!
We have a guest post from Dr. Michael Habib as part of our series on How Men Can Help. Michael is an Assistant Professor in Neurobiology at the University of Southern California where he teaches Clinical Human Anatomy and researches paleontology, biomechanics, robotics and comparative anatomy.
Sexism is rampant in many professions, and academia is no different. In the setting of universities, much of the ongoing sexism is not loud or obvious. Instead, there are persistent, subtle asymmetries in how men and women are treated on a daily basis. Academics, like myself, are often reticent to acknowledge and face the lingering sexism that exists in our workplaces, often under the illusion that our ivory tower is less susceptible. While it is true that some forms of harassment common in other work environments are rare in academics, plenty of problems remain. In many cases, problems arise because of a lack of perspective – comments that might seem perfectly innocent and complimentary to the speaker can have a negative impact in the wrong context. The negative repercussions are not limited to those on the receiving end of subtle sexism. In academia, those of us in the privileged classes can end up in trouble quite rapidly if we are too naive.