Women In STEM Part 1: Starting the Conversation

By Kelly Martin

SMEA second-year Spencer Showalter preparing for a plankton tow off the side of the NOAA R/V Ron Brown, somewhere off the west coast of North America looking for neurotoxic phytoplankton. Photo by Meghan Shea

A little over a year ago, I went to a job interview that I was confident I was qualified for: my resume matched up almost perfectly with the “desired qualifications” listed in the job posting. However, right before I walked in to the interview, I had a moment of self-doubt and quickly pulled my long, blonde hair back into low bun. I had straightened my hair that morning to make it look more professional than my usual untidy waves did, but under the glare of the fluorescent lights of the waiting room I suddenly became self-conscious: I was concerned that this time I spent on my appearance would make me look too feminine, and therefore, I wouldn’t be taken seriously. But with skills and experience that certainly qualified me for the job, something as trivial as my appearance wouldn’t affect whether or not my interviewers thought I was qualified enough, right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case: a 2016 study found that women with “feminine appearance” were perceived as less likely to be professional scientists.

SMEA second-year Angela Cruz (left) and colleagues stop to take a photo while surveying creeks for salmonids in Northern California with the Department of Fish and Wildlife through AmeriCorps.

Other women in STEM fields have also expressed an internal struggle between expressing their femininity in ways that make them happy and comfortable, but also wanting to be taken seriously. That job interview was a moment when my own internal struggle made me realize that as a female graduate student in STEM, the experience on my resume may not always be enough. From subtle bias to outright sexual harassment, concerns over appearance are just another hurdle that women have to deal with to be respected, succeed, and feel safe in STEM fields.

If you looked around any given School of Marine and Environmental Affairs class, you might wonder if it really is so hard to be a woman in a STEM field; female-identifying students easily make up over 50% of our student body. This trend holds true for ocean science programs across the U.S.: a 2013 National Science Foundation (NSF) study found that more than half of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in STEM fields are awarded to women, and nearly half of doctoral degrees are awarded to women. But despite these promising numbers at the early stages of a STEM career, there is still a large gender gap in leadership roles: the same NSF study found that just 26% of tenured STEM professors are women. So where are all these women with STEM degrees going? They leave the field at various points throughout their careers due to the barriers and biases that they face; this phenomenon has been described as a “leaky pipeline,” with both data and significant anecdotal evidence to support the existence of these challenges.

(Middle – near the mention of the leaky pipeline) The Leaky Pipeline. Source: Grogan, K. E. (2018). How the entire scientific community can confront gender bias in the workplace. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3(1), 3-6. doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0747-4

For example, one study found that women are half as likely as men to receive an “excellent” recommendation letter, and another study found that men receive significantly more “standout” adjectives (e.g. outstanding, unique, and exceptional) in their recommendation letters than women. While some of this may be the result of unconscious bias, there is certainly conscious bias in STEM fields as well. In 2015, Nobel-prize-winning scientist, Tim Hunt, shared his thoughts about the “trouble with girls” in science: “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.” Female scientists around the world responded to Hunt’s comments with a twitter-storm of sarcasm and the hashtag #DistractinglySexy. This social media frenzy brought much-needed attention to the fact that women are often perceived as less capable, overly emotional, or a distraction in STEM fields. More recently, the #MeToo movement has also helped bring to light countless horrifying stories of sexual harassment in the STEM workplace — there is a MeTooSTEM twitter account that shares many of these stories.

SMEA second-year Priscilla Rivas measuring Dissolved Oxygen in a stream at Salmon Creek, CA, as a part of salmon habitat surveys.

I ended up getting that job, and knowing my bosses now, I’m sure whether my hair was up or down or whatever else would not have made a difference — I’m lucky to have very thoughtful, intentional female and male supervisors. But not everyone is so lucky. While conversations about gender and diversity in STEM are becoming more mainstream, the problems have not been solved; women throughout STEM fields still face unreasonable double-standards, bias, harassment, and other disadvantages. I should also note that I am a white woman from a middle-class background, and therefore do not have to face the “double bind” of both sexism and racism that many of my peers who are women of color in STEM experience.

Beyond the issues of women in STEM academics and careers, women are also often left out of the picture in other ways. Historically, research on climate change, fisheries, and other topics with an inherent human-environment connection has failed to take into consideration the role that women play in those systems, or how women might be adversely impacted as a result of changes to that system. When research misses such a crucial piece of the puzzle, the conservation and management activities based on that research can miss their mark. Including women’s voices in environmental decision-making is also vital, and some evidence suggests that including women actually leads to better management.

With the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science taking place on February 11, Currents is celebrating its own women in STEM and joining the conversation with this feature series. We hope that by creating another platform for discussion we can encourage the entire STEM community to become more aware of and take action on these issues. So join the conversation with us every Thursday this month on the Currents blog and on Twitter with #UWCurrents and #WomenInSTEM.

In the interest of sharing scientific knowledge, we do our best to cite sources that are free and available for all of our readers. However, sometimes we cannot avoid citing articles that restrict access with a paywall. If you are interested in learning more about a specific source, please reach out to kmartin8@uw.edu.