Women in Science: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

What do Merit Ptah, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin* and yours truly all have in common?

We’re all women who have practiced or are practicing in the stereotypically male-dominated fields, science and engineering.

Anecdotally, I think a lot has changed in the past generation.

Looking back through my mom’s high school yearbooks (oh man, talk about bad hair!), most of the female students list their aspirations as nurse, teacher or homemaker- all considered stereotypically female careers. My mom appears to be the exception as she lists journalism as her dream job. Mom can’t recall a single female student saying “I want to be a doctor” or “I want to be a civil engineer”. Looking through my high school yearbooks (yikes! still lots of bad hair), more female students list doctor, researcher, or biologist as their career aspirations.

And I really do think it is within the past generation that things have started to change.

During my Bachelor’s, I had a course wherein there were more students named Stephanie than there were male students. At my very first academic conference I attended, I noticed that most of the professional and board members were old, white guys, whereas the younger attendees were more likely to be female and/or not-white (racial/ethnic diversity is a totally different blog topic for a later day).

Most of my classes (both during my Bachelor’s in Canada and my Master’s in the Netherlands) were taught by male instructors and professors, while my TAs were more or less 50-50 male-female. In my current job, it’s still the most senior positions that are held by males, but now we jokingly complain at the lunch table about the number of women in our department (also the number of pregnant women in our institute- it was a very cold winter in NL, wink wink).

Historically speaking…

I’m not sure when or by whom it was decided that women weren’t cut out to be scientists, but it seems to go way back. Maybe we were too busy having babies and raising children, cooking and cleaning, or maybe we weren’t considered smart enough to play in the lab with the men, but whatever arguments you use, they quite frankly don’t stand up any more.

But still

Recent studies by the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine in the US show that women become professors less frequently than their male counterparts. And those that do are less likely to be tenured. The authors argue that this may be due to lower productivity of female researchers because they are given fewer resources by their institutes and universities or that the female researchers are less positively judged than their male peers.

While more females are working and studying in the biological sciences, the number of women studying or working in the fields of mathematics, engineering, computer sciences and the physical sciences (chemistry, earth sciences and physics) seems to remain low (Statistics Canada, 2001). Similar results have been found in Europe by the European Commission- Women and Science Unit

So, while it seems that girls and women online slots do appear to be increasing, we’ve still got a way to go.

Mentoring

I think one of the easiest ways to get girls interested in science is to show them what they’ve got to look forward to. Mentoring programs for elementary school kids are great, (but shouldn’t focus on just girls- everyone should love science!) But it shouldn’t stop there. I was lucky to have a series of absolutely amazing high school science teachers (shout-out to Bell High School!) that sparked my interest and held it. I can honestly say that it was Mr. Ruttan’s biology lessons on DNA (thymus in a blender anyone?) that started my passion for all things genetic.

It was at U of T that I noticed the large number of girls in my program and science courses in general. However, most of my professors were male, and on those days when I wondered if I really did want to continue on with this science-thing, it was kind of disappointing to see and the lack of role models did upset me. To quote Pamela Bjorkman, a 2010 UNESCO-L’Oreal laureate, “It can be discouraging for a young person today who’s trying to enter science if she doesn’t see anyone who looks like her doing science.”

It was similar for my Master’s but luckily my program director was an outstanding (female) cardiologist. And through my internships, I’ve found not one, but two great mentors. Miriam, my supervisor from Argentina, who does amazing science with so little and who always said I should go for what I wanted. And Emily, my thesis supervisor who has travelled the world, published extensively, consulted for the WHO, sits on international committees and has encouraged me to publish, train and go for my PhD.

Interested students can check out WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) for more information (and scholarship opportunities!), but a mentor doesn’t need to be a formal thing. If you’ve met a great professor, researcher or even a TA, ask her as many questions as you can (trust me, we love talking about ourselves and our research) and find out how she got to where she is.

For an interesting look at the under-representation of women in the sciences, check out “Under-representation or Mis-representation” by Doreen Kimura in:

S.J. Ceci & W. Williams (Eds) Why aren”t more women in Science? APA Books, 2007, 39-46 or online at http://www.sfu.ca/~dkimura/articles/Ceci Essay.htm

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*Rosalind Franklin is a personal hero of mine. If it weren’t for her X-ray diffraction photos of DNA, Watson and Crick would have never come up with their double helix. And she gets barely any credit for it. She died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37, to which her exposure to x-rays may have been a contributing factor.

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