The CataLyst – Can you name a female scientist?

My guess is that most people know who Marie Curie was (the first woman to win a Nobel Price), and that’s probably where the list ends for many of us. Can you name a male scientist? How about 5, or 10? Yeah, not that difficult, is it? A European wide study found that although most of us could name one, a quarter couldn’t name a single female scientist, dead or alive. So the odds of people knowing more than one are slim.

They’ve uncovered some of our planet’s and the universe’s mysteries and their discoveries have helped to shape the world we live in, yet there’s still an out-dated idea that women haven’t made a difference to society. I’m pretty sure that this can be blamed on our ignorance about female scientists through history, and the fact than in many cases these women have effectively been written out of history books to the befit of their male counterparts.

Science journalist Priya Shetty said: “Women’s contributions have always been overlooked whether in politics, literature or science.” She added that without efforts to promote them, female scientists would sink into obscurity. “They’re not part and parcel of the education system. We’re not giving youngsters role models. Some of these women have had fantastic lives – why does nobody know about them?”

The Guardian had a piece a couple of months back about a similar issue after the Royal Society had been urging people to highlight the achievements of women in science by adding to their Wikipedia pages. Wikipedia is one of the most used sources of information today. It’s free and open, and anyone can add and edit articles. Yet the Wikipedia pages of many prominent women both in science and other fields show little more than a couple of short paragraphs of information.

Dame Athene Donald, fellow of the Royal Society, said “Many female scientists are either not there at all on Wikipedia or just [have] stubs. It’s not just the historical characters, it’s the current ones, and these very eminent women just somehow get overlooked.” And so, on March 4th this year, ahead of International Women’s Day, the Royal Society, working with the Royal Academy of Engineering, hosted an “edit-athon” to boost the presence of female scientists.

I think this is a great initiative, as every day we hear about the lack of role models for girls and how the STEM industry are losing its female workforce at various points in their careers. Wikipedia is a great arena to put focus on inspirational female role models as it’s almost always going to come top of Google search results. There is also hope that as the number of female Wikipedia editors increase, the focus will be shifted more onto women.

If you want to brush up on your knowledge of female scientists then read about these 6 women who were snubbed due to sexism, or why not learn about these 10 ground breaking women scientists written off by history. And in the interest of diversity, and my last post, the Royal Society has highlighted Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science. Enjoy!

The CataLyst: Privilege and Diversity

Before I was an adult woman (and had to endure everything that comes with it) I was a girl growing up in a place where, as far as I could tell, the biggest injustice was not based on gender. I knew that I was treated differently by certain people, but it wasn’t because I was a girl. You see, in addition to being a woman, I’m also mixed-race (hello diversity!).

My mum moved to Sweden in the late 1970’s, and back then Sweden was (and comparatively still is today) a very homogeneous place. I was lucky enough to live in a city with a larger than average immigrant population, and in fact, many of my school friends were not Swedish by birth. However, even among the diverse groups of ethnicities in my school I was a minority, and the stereotypes that come with looking Chinese were constantly being pointed out to me.

What I’m trying to say is that whatever group we identify as belonging to, we carry with us some sort of privilege that other groups may not have. These privileges come in different forms and depend on where we are, where we come from and where we’re going. And it’s so important to be aware of them and recognise that we have them. The same way that men have a societal privilege over women, white women have a privilege over women of colour and other ethnic minorities. Having been brought up in the West gives you a certain privilege and what socioeconomic background you come from will also play a part.

I’m by no means trying to rank people on how bad off they are. I am, however, trying to highlight that in this fight for equality between the sexes, it’s easy to see things in just one dimension (men and women). It’s easy to forget that when encouraging girls in schools, their biggest struggles may not be based on their gender, but on their skin colour, religion, or sexual orientation. And asking of them to identify with one very specific type of woman might be harder than identifying with someone of a similar background.

This is why it’s so important, that even though we’re trying to promote women within STEM (and for me, women within wider society in general), we have to remember to diversify our group as much as possible. Being inclusive is the only way that we will truly succeed, and having a cross-section of women from all backgrounds represented, ensures that we can reach out to girls from all parts of society.

Easier said than done? Yes it is. For the same reason there are more men than women in STEM, there are more white women then ethnic minority women. And there are more women from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than from lower ones. But that’s all part of the reason that initiatives like this exist right? So although we should keep up the effort to get more women into STEM, we also need to look at what we can do to balance the makeup of our group. We should definitely keep encouraging girls and focusing on girls everywhere, but maybe put a little more focus on the girls who will have to fight the odds a bit more.

There is (maybe not) surprisingly little out there about intersectionality in STEM fields, but I’m hoping that talking about it will be a good start.

The CataLyst: Let’s Talk About Role Models

First, I’d like to thank everyone for the warm reception of my first post on STEMinist. I’m very excited to be here and hope to grow with this column and everyone who reads it, gaining new experiences and perspectives along the way. In this post I want to expand a bit on role models and what I mentioned briefly last time:

You can’t be what you can’t see.

To do that, however, I feel I should tell you a bit about my journey to where I am today.

The First Type of Role Model: Awakening Interest
I was always a good student and enjoyed studying. There were no subjects I found particularly difficult, but there were those I enjoyed more than others. In secondary school a new teacher really opened my eyes to maths and science. This teacher was enthusiastic, explained things well, listened to students and was never condescending in how he treated people of different ability levels. During the three years he taught my class, everyone wanted to do well in maths and science; everyone wanted to earn his respect. I knew a lot of my classmates had never enjoyed maths and science before, but now made an effort and thought it was fun to go to those classes. This is the first type of role model, the one that gets a child’s attention, awakens an interest and keeps it.

The Second Type of Role Model: Nurturing Potential
In high school/A-levels I continued my focus on maths and science. I studied in the IB (International Baccalaureate) and chose to do Maths, Physics and Chemistry more in-depth. Here again, I was influenced by three fantastic teachers. My chemistry teacher was a woman in her 60’s and had taught chemistry her entire career. Her experiments in class always failed, but her teaching was structured and guiding. When I struggled, she listened and helped, not letting me resign to ‘I don’t understand‘. She pushed me to get a higher grade than I originally thought I could achieve, and wrote a fantastic personal reference for my university application. This is the second type of role model, the one who sees potential and nurtures it into something more.

The Third Type of Role Model: “I want to be like her”
Starting university was a shock, not only culturally (I moved to a new country) but in the way teaching was structured.  It opened my eyes to just how much ‘man’ was around me. My first two years studying Chemical Engineering, I spent a lot of time questioning whether I had actually made the right choice. Two things made me stick with it (besides stubbornness):

  1. The first was a lecturer who taught some of our classes from the third year onward. This was the first time I’d seen a woman doing what I wanted to do. Not only was she inspiring just by being there, she was also approachable, helpful and understanding. More importantly, she didn’t compromise just because she was a woman. She became my personal mentor and no matter what doubts and questions I had, she seemed to have an answer, because she had been there herself. This is the third type of role model, the one you can directly identify with and say, “I want to be like her.”
  2. The other thing that made me stick with Chemical Engineering leads me to where I am today. I took a year off of university before my final year and worked in an engineering consultancy office for 13 months. This office showed me a mix of 50/50 men and women working together as engineers. Yes, there were issues, and yes there was a vague air of the old boys’ club that sometimes surfaced, but it was a change from university. These women spoke up when they felt things were unfair, and I went back to finish my degree with a different mentality as a result.

Searching for the Next Role Model
Today, I find myself surrounded by colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds, but what I don’t see is that next stage of Role Model to look up to. There are few senior female engineers and even fewer women in senior management.

To a certain extent, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” rings very true during the early years that shape our choices in life. I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today without a lot of guidance and inspiration along the way. But now that I’m here, and know exactly what’s missing, it’s my job to fill that role.

Whatever stage we are in our careers as women in STEM, we have to pave the way to make it easier for future generations of girls to get to where we are. At every fork in the road, when I personally chose to stay in STEM, I know others didn’t because they lacked the right role models.

What inspired you to stay in STEM, and what can we do to make choosing STEM easier for every girl who’s questioning it today?

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Why First-Year STEM Girls Attend Women’s Colleges

Smith College is unique because it is an all-women’s liberal arts school that also has an engineering major… I had several reasons for choosing Smith College. One was the STRIDE program Smith has, which allows freshmen and sophomores to work on a research project with a professor as part of a work-study program. I know that will be an amazing opportunity for me.

[ via The Huffington Post ]

Educate Everyone About Second-Generation Gender Bias

Second-generation bias is embedded in stereotypes and organizational practices that can be hard to detect, but when people are made aware of it, they see possibilities for change. In our work with leadership development programs, we focus on a “small wins” approach to change. In one manufacturing company, a task force learned that leaders tended to hire and promote people, mainly men, whose backgrounds and careers resembled their own. They had good reasons for this behavior: Experienced engineers were hard to find, and time constraints pressured leaders to fill roles quickly.

[ via Harvard Business Review ]

Women Don’t Need to Lead Better Than Men. They Need to Lead Differently.

We need women in leadership positions not only because they can manage as well as men but because they manage differently than men. We need them because they tend — over time and in the aggregate — to make different kinds of decisions and bring different ideas to the table. We need women who will approach risk from a different perspective, who take an altered view of time and conflict, and who understand diversity as something more than an abstract theory.

[ via Harvard Business Review ]

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know About Women in the Workplace

Taking a more in-depth examination of women and leadership, our September issue focuses on some of the complicated ways gender manifests itself in our workplaces. We’ve gone beyond “leaning in,” “having it all,” and “opting out” to discuss the powerful and unseen barriers women encounter they’re rising through the ranks, particularly a second-generation bias that few young men and women recognize.

[ via Harvard Business Review ]

What Women Want: From the Point of View of a Gen Y Scientista

We want people to stop telling us that we aren’t innately interested in science. We tire of the benevolent sexism we receive, like being told that it’s “cool” that we wear dresses and make-up, as if femininity and science must contradict each other at some fundamental level. We want to be able to do research not in isolation, but in collaboration. We want to be able to form study groups in our male dominated classes without being left out for not being “one of the guys.”

[ via The Huffington Post ]

The list: 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women

The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that women have been writing good science fiction since the beginnings of the genre – a point signally ignored by the table of contents of the 1978 anthology 100 Great Science Fiction Short Stories, which contained only five stories by women.

[ via Ian Sales ]

Puppet Labs is giving away 5 free tickets to PuppetConf for women in IT/ops/sysadmin

PuppetConf also includes a women’s breakfast, 8am to 9am on Friday morning, where you can meet other women interested in systems administration. It is open to all self-identified women attending PuppetConf.

[ via Ada Initiative ]