When I was little I loved science. I eagerly awaited new episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus. In high school I got good grades in Biology and Math the same way as in English and History. But it wasn’t STEM careers I was encouraged to pursue. The (mostly) men teaching these classes never suggested I should go any further than taking the classes to meet my exam requirements. I’m happy with the way my career has gone, but part of me has wondered since whether I’d have been more encouraged in science and math if I was a guy, and whether I ended up putting myself into social sciences and humanities because I’d internalized a view that’s where women were supposed to go.
So I was interested in the “Adventures in Women in Science” panel at Geek Girl Con, which was moderated by science blogger and Biology PhD student Kelly Weinersmith. The panel consisted of Kristina Wang, University of Washington PhD student in aeronautics and astronautics, epidemiologist Miki Garrison, college chemistry professor Torrey Stenmark, aerospace scientist Amruta Mehta, and chemical engineer Jessica Balle.
As someone who’s not thinking of changing jobs to enter a STEM career path, the session wasn’t exactly geared to me, but it did reveal the interesting experiences the panelists had as women in science.
I got up to ask the panelists if any of them had experienced being discouraged from STEM careers because of their gender. Miki Garrison noted that girls being scared because of doing badly in math or science in high school is a huge reason they decide not to try science careers, and pointed out that what you learn in high school is very different from college-level science.
“Your skills can catch up if you’re passionate,” she said, “Decide what you want to do and don’t let anyone turn you away from that.”
Miki also recalled an early teacher of hers who suggested she might as well just copy her male partner’s lab notes because the work was too hard for girls. But she realized that professor’s attitude put him in the minority and she was able to find support from other faculty.
Jessica talked about starting at CalTech, where a professor told her she didn’t belong, despite the fact that her grades and behaviour were exemplary. She said she tries to see it as a positive that she’s managed to succeed in a field where there are so few women.
Amruta expressed a similar sentiment: “I got that all the time from when I was a very little girl. It’s up to us to not keep listening to it.”
Torrey noted that in her college’s chemistry department, only 2/14 tenure-track positions were filled by women. She noted one bias, that “people worry about women wanting to start a family and then you don’t want to work in a lab when you’re pregnant.”
Another person asked the panelists whether they felt their gender brought anything different to the field.
Miki said that doing pediatric interventions means she has to sometimes “reality-check” the doctors setting up experiments involving mothers. She mentioned one example where doctors wanted to approach women very soon after having given birth to ask them to commit to a five-year research project. Kristina mentioned that her gender helps her realize when things are only being designed for men, like space suits and shelving heights.
Many attendees wanted advice on how to get into science as a career. Kelly also encouraged women to get into science even if they felt like they were getting a late start, noting that having a career in science today doesn’t always have to mean going to grad school. They pointed out the discoveries made by amateur astronomers and other scientists that have made news and helped advance knowledge. Miki suggested working on networking, pointing out that her department sees 500 applicants for every job they post. She also suggested volunteering, though she recognizes it can make it hard if you have to make ends meet in the meantime.
“Just because you weren’t born knowing you wanted to be a scientist doesn’t mean you can’t be successful,” Kristina said.