women in science

FFFF: Rosalind Franklin Rap

Funny Feminist Friday Film square logoIn this Science History Rap Battle, some super skilled seventh graders use rap to tell the story of Rosalind Franklin and how she contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA, which was then credited mainly to Watson and Crick.

For a full transcript of the lyrics, click here. And if you’re interested in learning more about the history of Watson & Crick vs. Rosalind Franklin, Science with Tom has recommendations for books and websites to check out.

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in FFFF Leave a comment

Infographic: The Rise of Women in Tech

Only 1 in 4 STEM jobs is currently held by a woman. I’ve talked before about some of the issues getting women into STEM careers. Now I thought I’d share this interesting infographic about some of the benefits to women and tech companies occurring as women enter science and tech careers in greater numbers. Check out the full infographic after the jump.


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Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism 1 Comment

Geek Girl Con: Women in Science

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.”

Kristina WangTorrey 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.


Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism 1 Comment

Blog for IWD: Women in Science

To celebrate the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day I’m participating in the Gender Across Borders Blog for IWD. Follow their live-blogging of the event here. You can also follow the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #blogforiwd. This year’s theme for IWD is “Our History is Our Strength” and GAB is asking specifically:

  • What does it mean to have equal access to education, training and science and technology for women, and how do we get there?

The way I see it, there are two reasons women are still underrepresented in science and technology: the first is underrepresentation of women in these fields, including in popular culture representation, and the second is women’s continuing material inequality.

Let’s look at issues around representation. Although research by the Canadian Youth Science Monitor showed an equal number of youth of both genders interested in pursuing careers in science, recent UNESCO data shows a lack of women scientists worldwide, and US and Canadian organizations recognize the underrepresentation as a continuing challenge. In the male-dominated field of Engineering, the peak of women’s enrollment in Canada was in 2001, when they made up 20.5% of undergraduates. Women make up only 30% of the doctoral degrees awarded in Engineering and Natural Sciences.

When some science facilities create a hostile climate for women and our schools and universities fail to actively recruit women into science we create a vicious cycle, with young women unable to see themselves reflected in the cultural ideal of what it means to be a “scientist” or an “engineer” or to pursue other technology-focused professions. When I was in high school I got the message loud and clear: it isn’t sexy for girls to be smart. This message is compounded by representations in popular culture, with shows like The Big Bang Theory and even sci-fi shows like Star Trek, to some extent, reinforcing the view that science is men’s terrain.

But even if we had more woman scientist characters on TV, it wouldn’t change the material factors that deter women from scientific careers. In Canada, the lack of a universal child care program might make women think twice before taking on a career in science or technology, where some institutions might not help employees balance work and family responsibilities. And 21 years after the Montreal Massacre, when female engineering students were gunned down for being female engineering students, the threat of violence against women who take on “male” roles hasn’t completely abated. While we haven’t experienced another shooting of female science students, many report experiencing hostility from male classmates and professors, as well as from coworkers later in their professional lives.

It’s an understatement to say both of these problems are exacerbated for women of colour.

In a great article on Racialicious today, Latoya Peterson recalls an experience speaking up at a feminist event: “You said things are so much better for women- but you are only talking about white women. Outside of Oprah, where’s our progress, on or off screen?” While women overall have made some gains in science and some women have been recognized for outstanding achievements, by and large it is white women who are increasing their representation, and they are also the ones most recognized for their achievements.

In her book, When Everything Changed, Gail Collins interviews a woman of Latina descent who started a job at IBM in the 1990s. She recalls a male colleague who told her she had to spend more of the time during her presentations explaining how she was like the white men in the room, how she had gone to the same schools as them and earned the same degrees, because, her colleague said, “Right now they’re spending the first 10 minutes wondering, who is this Latina woman?” If young white women find it hard to find role models in science, young women of colour – especially Aboriginal women - have an even harder time, and this is a serious problem.

And educational and income inequality also disproportionately affects women of colour, making it more difficult for young women of colour to pursue post-secondary education, much less ones in science and technology. We can’t talk about encouraging women and girls in science and technology without talking about addressing these issues.

Dr. Indira Samarasekera

So how do we address these issues? On the representation front, it’d be great to see more women scientist characters in pop culture, particularly women of colour. It’s also going to be up to women who have succeeded in science to put themselves out there as visible role models, to take on mentorship roles, and to help institutions change their cultures and actively recruit more women.

Innovation Canada came out with a great video in honour of International Women’s Day called “Women’s Work”, which features the stories of five Canadian women scientists: Dr. Indira Samarasekera, President of the University of Alberta; granting council President Suzanne Fortier; Ethnomusicologist Charity Marsh; Evolutionary Biologist Maydianne Andrade; and Biomedical Engineer Molly Shoichet. It would be great to see more videos like this more widely disseminated.

The material changes needed are more difficult. We need government to work to increase women’s access to child care, to support women pursuing post-secondary education in the sciences, and to make sure our school system is encouraging girls in the sciences. We need particular effort to address racial income inequality and racist attitudes that make it harder for people of colour to continue their education. These are difficult needs to address, but not impossible, and entirely worth fighting for.

So Happy International Women’s Day, with a particular shout-out to all the women who have taken on the male-dominated field of science and technology. Let’s celebrate our achievements while recognizing the challenges ahead.


Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Can-Con, Feminism, Pop Culture Leave a comment