Standing up and speaking out for women in STEM

by Leslie Irwin, NOAA Research Communications Fellow

*These views are my own and do not reflect those of my host agency.

I’m late I’m late I’m late I’m late! After all this I can’t miss it!!

I had just spent the last five hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic from D.C. to the quiet college town of Selinsgrove, PA. It should have taken less than three.

I didn’t even get to enjoy the fall foliage, which at this point seemed to be the only benefit of my undergraduate institution’s location.

I was honored that my former professors would think of me as a participant for the featured Science-Alumni Career Panel during Susquehanna University’s homecoming festivities. Not even five years graduated, I hardly felt qualified to mentor these budding researchers in finding an ideal career path in the sciences. I still wasn’t entirely sure about my own career path!

I can’t be late.

Somehow, I managed to (not so subtly) sneak in only ten minutes late, thankful there were four other panelists going before me.

I had to hand it to Susquehanna, they had pulled together a pretty diverse representation of jobs in scientific fields. There was hydrologist with the USDA, an endocrinologist with Fletcher Allen Health Care, an ecologist with the PA Bureau of Forestry, a PhD student in biophysics from Johns Hopkins, and finally myself, the science communicator from NOAA. I was looking forward to demonstrating that you don’t have to be in research and academia to have a fulfilling career in science.

But while there was a wide variety of career examples present, something was still off. Not just off. It was glaringly obvious.

Thank God I wasn’t too late.

I was the only woman on the panel, and by far the youngest. This isn’t to say that the other panelists shouldn’t have been there, and they gave excellent advice, but it’s frustrating when I look out into an audience of science undergrads consisting of mostly young women. They need to see that women in STEM have future career prospects. They need to look at everyone on the panel and picture themselves in our seats someday.

What if I hadn’t made it in time? Am I making too big a deal out of it?

The third question qualified my concerns.

“Miss Irwin, you’re the only woman sitting up there. How does that make you feel?”

They felt it too. I answered as best I could.

“I’m a little surprised to be the only woman, especially since in my education and early career, there has been no shortage of women in my field. I can’t speak for the panel’s recruitment committee, and maybe this was just the luck of the draw in terms of who was available to speak today. It is still frustrating. I can say, that while there are many women in my field, there is an obvious surplus of men in the leadership positions, and I hope to see that change. My advice to the women in the audience is to hold true to your career goals, because you’ve made it. Don’t let them edge you out, and know that you are just as capable and qualified as your male peers here today.”

As the questions continued, my mind drifted to a statistic that was tweeted at the conclusion of the ScienceOnline Oceans conference I had recently attended. Sessions with more women produced male and female participation that was representative of the group. Sessions with more men lead to a mere 10% participation from the women, regardless of audience proportion.

I’m not going to get into the details or speculate all of the possible reasons why that was.

I can’t be a statistic.

I made sure I spoke up during the panel discussions for any question posed to the group as a whole. Just because I was the least experienced and the only woman did not mean I had nothing valuable to contribute to these discussions. The best service I could do for those girls in the audience was to show them I was confident in my choices and observations, and not scared to speak up. I had value, and they did too. I am proud to say that I think I held my own!

The rest of the Q and A session went beyond my expectations. Everyone was engaged and genuinely interested, willingly going fifteen minutes late despite it being the Friday evening of Homecoming Weekend.

I originally expected to be writing about the benefits a small, liberal arts college afforded me in the fields of biology and marine science, which I may well do in a later post. But I couldn’t ignore the gender discrepancy on the panel. I was congratulated and thanked repeatedly for representing women in science, and this gave me mixed feelings. I felt great about being there, championing my gender. I felt uncomfortable that I even needed to play that role in the first place.

I can’t wait for the day when the excellence of women in science is commended for just that—pure excellence, and not with the added bonus of “and she’s a woman too!”

Especially in the light of recent events in the science journalism community, I hope that women in STEM careers only become more empowered and confident in their abilities. Plenty of women in science are absolute rock stars, and we need to take it upon ourselves to be role models for the future generation of women in our field.

There are so many women at the undergrad and graduate levels, but we need to show them how to stick with it and fight for the retention of women in the higher tiers of science, be it in research, policy, management, or communications.

It’s not too late.


One thought on “Standing up and speaking out for women in STEM

  1. Hear hear! First time on your blog, Leslie (I’m a little ashamed to say) and I couldn’t agree more. We will know that we have achieved true equality in the world of science when we are acknowledged purely on the basis of the excellence of our work, with no gender qualifiers. That being said, with the way the system currently works, it IS noteworthy to be an established woman career scientist or woman in a science related field. How many men take time out of their careers to stay home and look after the kids? How many companies even offer paternity leave? Things are slowly changing, and I look forward to a future where it doesn’t matter your gender, if you want to take time off to raise your child you can, and not expect to have a career in pieces when you return. I have personally met women who have well established careers, are leaders in their respective fields and who have been given grief (by their colleagues no less!) for even contemplating having children as there is this perception that if you take a break for a few months or years your career will irreparably suffer. So to those women who have done it all, I tip my hat. For future generations of women who want to work in a science related field I say, stick with it! Only by remaining undaunted in our pursuit of our career goals and forcing people to understand that there can, and should be a work-life balance, can we start to change these perceptions and redress the gender imbalance that is currently so prominent in the science workplace.

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