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.
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.
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.
It’s a bumper season for sexism in science. Earlier this year, the media was abuzz with a startling revelation: sexism in science is a myth! A study by developmental psychologists Williams and Ceci, purportedly showing a lack of hiring bias in academia, became fodder for “clickbait” inflation characteristic of media hype. Recent newsworthy events, however, show that casual sexism is alive and well, unwittingly propagated by the stalwarts who make up the old guard. They’ve left us shaking our heads wondering, what were they thinking?
The Blunders: By now much has been said about the unfortunate remarks uttered by the Nobel Prize winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt while addressing a roomful of women scientists and journalists in Korea.
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry”.
Sir Tim was speaking from personal experience: his wife Professor Mary Collins used to be his student, with whom he “fell in love in the lab” exemplifying the “relationship drama” that can be so distracting in a professional setting.
Similarly, former AAAS president Professor Alice Huang, who also married her postdoctoral mentor Nobelist David Baltimore after a lab romance, suggested that young women should tolerate unwanted (and inappropriate) sexual behavior in the work place. Responding on her Ask Alice column to a woman postdoc who asked for advice in dealing with a mentor repeatedly looking down her blouse, Dr. Huang advised her to “put up with it, with good humor if you can”.
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.
ScienceAlert, a pop science news site, has published a “science news” story using a sexist image, which prominently features a woman’s breasts. Several issues arise about the use of sex to sell science publishing. One major issue relates to links between “everyday sexism” women encounter through their daily lives, including through the media, and the professional barriers that women face in STEM careers. Another issue relates to the scientific value of using sexism to specifically sell pop science reporting. The image is designed as “click bait.” We’ll analyse this in the context of the science in the article and the subsequent discussion on ScienceAlert’s Facebook page. The issue we highlight is how the blurring of sexist marketing and pop science news leads to a decreased public understanding of science, while also hurting educational campaigns to boost public awareness about women’s contribution in STEM.