Author: STEM Women

STEM Women is set up to help the public to connect with women who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Our network is run by a group of practising STEM women professionals. We aim to create a safe place for people of all genders to discuss how we can work together to make STEM more inclusive. Join us: http://www.stemwomen.net

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

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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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Summer of Sexism: Blunders, Blow-ups and Backlash

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.

No Falling in Love. No crying. Photo: Prof Rajini Rao
No Falling in Love. No crying. Photo: Prof Rajini Rao

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”.

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Gender Bias in STEM: A Southern Perspective

By Cathy Newman

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 STEM event. 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:

  1. Dr. Karen Adler Storthz: professor emerita at the University of Texas Health Science Center,
  2. Sorcha Clary: project engineer for Marathon Petroleum.
  3. Judea Goins-Andrews: director of school engagement for Louisiana at Project Lead the Way,
  4. Rebecca Guidry: clinical medical physicist at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center,
  5. Pat Bodin: former chief information officer and VP of global information for ExxonMobil.
Louisiana State University Women in STEM
LSU Women in STEM panel (Left to right): Dr Adler Storthz; Sorcha Clary; Judea Goins-Andrews; Rebecca Guidry; Pat Bodin. Photo: Cathy Newman (copyright)

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.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts

By  Kristin Milton

Kristin Milton
Kristin Milton

Kristin Milton wants the conversation about “the leaky pipeline” to broaden, and include applied researchers and specialists who navigate gender discrimination in STEM. Her post focuses on the “many little cuts” that applied women in STEM face in their daily work. Her story shows that the conversation about gender inequality needs to be inclusive of women in STEM beyond academia, as there are many intersections in our experiences of “everyday sexism,” as well as some unique challenges that we should collectively support.

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The Most Important Scientist in My Life: My Mom

By Jonah Miller

This guest post is by computational physicist Jonah Miller, who interviews his mother, Dr Arleen Miller, about her experiences getting a STEM degree in the 1970s. Her dissertation was focused on mathematical outcomes of girls and boys. She also shares experiences teaching mathematics in Sierra Leone.

Dr Arleen Miller
Dr Arleen Miller

January 6th is my mother’s birthday. As a present, I decided to showcase the first scientist I ever knew—one who I met before I was even born.

Arleen Garfinkle (one day to be Arleen Miller) entered graduate school  at the University of Colorado in the fall of 1973 and graduated in 1979. During that time she developed a battery of tests designed to track a child’s numerical and logical reasoning skills, based on the theories of psychologist Jean Piaget.

Once she developed the test, she gave it (and several other tests) to over 200 pairs of twins aged four through eight and correlated their success rates to other factors, such as their gender and how much their parents emphasized success. One of her most significant findings was that a young child’s ability to learn math was highly dependent on genetics. Another was that gender had no effect on performance—i.e., girls and boys were equally good at math.

Despite being offered a prestigious position at Yale University, my mother left academia to pursue other interests. But to me, she’ll always be my favorite scientist. (more…)

Stereotype Threat and the Leaky Pipeline in STEM: Our Interview with Professor Chad Forbes

We spoke with Professor Chad Forbes about his research on stereotype threat and how it undermines the success of women in STEM. Chad is a social neuroscientist in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware.

Social neuroscience is a burgeoning field that uses neuroscience methodologies such as electroencephalograms (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and molecular genetics- anything that indexes neural activity, to inform social psychological theory and test a research hypothesis. Social neuroscience methods examine people in real time and can index their reaction to stimuli- even if these thought processes are unconscious or if the subjects are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge their feelings.

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Making Space History: Candy Torres, NASA Engineer & Latina Pioneer

Rather auspiciously, we commemorated the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing through a Hangout on Air interview with engineer Candy Torres!  She gained a degree in astrophysics in the 1970s, where she was only one of seven women in her classes. Candy spoke about the challenges of following her career in science, which included gender exclusion and not having any women colleagues to support her education. Despite the gender and cultural barriers she faced, Candy walked into her dream job the day after graduating from university. Through networking, tenacity and a commitment to learning new skills, Candy went on to work on satellites, the NASA Space Shuttle & the International Space Station. She has been part of a team to make space exploration history. Watch the video or read more below!

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Nature vs Nurture: Girls and STEM

This article was originally published on the Nature Soapbox Science blog. It was written by STEM Women managers Zuleyka Zevallos, Buddhini Samarasinghe and Rajini Rao.

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.

Not only is there a ‘leaky pipeline’ in STEM, the plumbing itself is broken. Image credit: STEM Women
Not only is there a ‘leaky pipeline’ in STEM, the plumbing itself is broken. Image credit: STEM Women

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.

We must look to nurture, not nature, for change.

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