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How to Support Women in STEM

PhD student Lauren Moseley is a board member of Women in Science at Columbia, where she helps to raise the profile of women in STEM fields
PhD student Lauren Moseley is a board member of Women in Science at Columbia, where she helps to raise the profile of women in STEM. Photo courtesy of Lauren Moseley

Today is International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is “Balance for Better.”

Unfortunately, the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are still struggling with gender balance. Around the world, only 30 percent of scientists are women. Even in the U.S. women make up less than half of the workforce in all the hard science fields, and the disparity is particularly stark in the fields of engineering, computer science, and physics. Plus, women in STEM are less likely to be in positions of authority, and they earn up to one-third less than their male counterparts. A recent study found that even federal grants shortchange women; the median N.I.H. award for female researchers is roughly $126,600, compared with $167,700 for men.

Lauren Moseley is a first-year PhD student at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and a board member of Women in Science at Columbia (WISC), a group that’s committed to enhancing diversity in the STEM fields within the university. We talked with her about the challenges women scientists often face, and what we can all do to help make the STEM fields a more welcoming space for women and other underrepresented minorities.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What does your research focus on?

I’m interested in how the ocean carbon cycle is responding to climate change. In particular, I’m interested in better understanding air-sea gas exchange mechanisms in the Labrador Sea to improve projections of future oxygen and ocean carbon dioxide uptake. I’m currently using a physical and biogeochemical model of the subpolar North Atlantic Ocean, a region of intense air-sea gas exchange, to study this.

How did you first get involved with WISC?

I knew that I wanted to help foster an inclusive for everyone at Columbia who identifies as a woman in STEM, and WISC was just a really great way to be part of that movement. It’s an organization dedicated to the advancement of women, underrepresented minorities and allies in the STEM fields at Columbia. It’s a great space to call attention to the challenges that women face, and I believe that this can create a more equitable environment for everyone.

What are some of those challenges that women in STEM face?

I only want to speak to my experiences, but I think one of the major challenges includes representation. Women — and especially women of color — are highly underrepresented in positions of authority, such as tenured faculty positions, but you’ll also see this reflected in cohorts and student bodies. For young and early career female scientists, these male-dominated environments can often feel isolating and hostile.

Another major issue is self-doubt, and what’s known as imposter syndrome. Studies have found imposter syndrome to be widespread among all minority groups in the sciences, indiscriminate of career success. Personally, I spent a few years away from research after undergraduate and my return to academia was difficult in many ways, but particularly psychologically. I had many moments of self-doubt during my first semester, and I expect that to continue, unfortunately.

Microaggressions are also rampant in the sciences, and these microaggressions, whether intentional or unintentional, expose hidden biases and prejudices that generally make women feel unwelcome and disrespected. For example, I’ve become increasingly aware of how often men interrupt and speak over women. This happens one-on-one, during meetings, during lectures — really in any environment. In one class last semester, I witnessed a male undergraduate student interrupt a female professor, and expert in her field, to challenge her on a point in her lecture, which I found incredibly insulting.

What does WISC do to help?

WISC is comprised of an amazing group of volunteers who are organizing events and outreach year-round to provide networking opportunities, mentoring resources, and other opportunities for professional development for women at Columbia. For example, WISC is hosting a Science Policy Symposium on March 13 to spotlight women in science, policy and advocacy roles, and provide exposure for what might be considered unconventional scientific career paths — unconventional in that you’re not being directed into the pipeline of academia. There are many opportunities, and I think that anything that puts a spotlight on a woman in a specific career is great and informative.

What else can we do to improve gender balance in the STEM fields?

I believe universities, research institutions, other scientific organizations need to take the lead in promoting gender equality in STEM education and careers and, when they fall short, they should be held accountable.

I also believe in the power of allies. Allies, particularly men in male-dominated spaces, can play a key role in uplifting and supporting women. You should call out overt discrimination and microaggressions, and communicate directly with your colleagues on how they can be better allies. Don’t put the burden of these uncomfortable conversations on women. You can also use your voice to call for equal representation and inclusion of women in seminar series, award pools, hiring pools, and nominate your female colleagues for all of these opportunities. When speaking up, just be careful not to speak for or over women — use your voice to improve their visibility and help their voices be heard.

An important note is that white women also have a responsibility to act as allies for women of color, who are far less represented and face even greater challenges in STEM fields.

Are things changing for the better?

In my limited experience, yes, I do see some encouraging and positive change happening. But that’s not to say that there are not still major problems to address.

It seems like people are talking about it more these days, especially after #MeToo.

Yeah, exactly! I just hope these conversations are then translated into substantive actions and policy decisions.

Do you think things like International Women’s Day help with that?

I do think that it’s a valuable day to have. It’s a great way to celebrate and uplift women’s voices. But I will say that I believe the spirit of International Women’s Day shouldn’t be reserved for just one day out of the year. Often I’m disappointed to notice that companies and organizations will just spotlight women for one day and then return to business as usual for the other 364 days of the year, with no additional efforts to establish gender equality. So I believe that the momentum that’s brought to International Women’s Day is completely justified, but it should be sustained year-round.

In general, why is it important to have gender equality in STEM?

Quite simply, diversity of thought leads to better results and better science, and equal inclusion of all genders in STEM ultimately benefits society as a whole. On a similar point, the greater inclusion of underrepresented genders creates more comfortable learning and working environments for those currently in STEM.

What’s your advice for other young women who hope to have a career in STEM?

What would have been very helpful to me as a young woman is realizing that many identities are critically underrepresented in STEM, and just because you don’t feel like you see yourself in the space, it doesn’t mean you don’t belong. If you identify as a woman and operate in the sciences then you are, in a fact, a woman in science!

My recommendation is to try and surround yourself with people who support your academic and personal growth, and create networks for the mentorship and support that you feel you need to achieve your goals. And also, be open and honest about the challenges that you face. If you can’t find or create that community in the people around you, consider joining Twitter. For all its faults, I’ve found that Twitter can be a great space for open dialogue and connecting with like-minded peers.

Most of all, believe in yourself and your ability to transform science and society.

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4 years ago

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