The Case for Investing in Women Scientists ASAP

April 4, 2016 | 10:37 am
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

I knew from a very early age that I was destined to pursue the sciences.  Growing up in an urban part of New Jersey, I had little access to the ‘great outdoors’ but made the most of what little there was. During a school field trip to the nearby Hackensack Meadowlands, a huge expanse of wetlands that has historically been dumped in and destroyed by human intervention, I fell in love. I studied each and every creature that was a part of the underdog ecosystem and pledged to help save it from additional degradation.

Fast forward ten years and I was interning at the Meadowlands’ research facility, tracking how many industrial pollutants had been trapped in the sediment in the Hackensack River and thinking about potential solutions. Fast forward another ten years and I am at an organization dedicated to bringing the best available science to communities facing the assault of pollutants. While on track to become a biologist, my interest in informing science-based policies led me away from a career in a lab, but I still consider myself a scientist at heart.

I always thought my journey in the sciences was a typical experience. While earning my undergraduate biology degree, I worked with many men and women scientists, at par with each other in competence or intellect. That is why I was surprised by a recent study showing that male biology students were more likely to rank male students as mastering the subject than women who had equal, if not better, grades. This builds on Yale research which found that scientists reviewing job applications were more likely to score male candidates higher than females, despite identical qualifications. This gender bias, while subtle, can undermine women’s confidence in their scientific abilities, and could be responsible for their attrition from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) pipeline.

A look back at my undergraduate experience

Lower retention in STEM at the university level has led to fewer women, especially minority women, employed in science and engineering jobs. Graphic: NSF

Emerging research on these implicit biases has prompted me to reevaluate my time in college and uncover some subtle experiences that I was too young and naïve to understand as atypical. Day one of Biology 101 at my majority male alma mater was a reality check for me. Coming from an all-girls private school where confidence was never an issue, I felt less comfortable speaking up in a male-dominated class with a male professor. I felt the continual need to prove myself as competent to my male peers and professors. I was fortunate enough to find assistance and comfort among my scientifically-engaged female peers and we encouraged one another as we completed our degrees.

But many are not as lucky. The challenges faced by minority women in science are far more severe, which is apparent in the stagnating percentage of minorities earning bachelor’s degrees in the biological and physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics, and the associated insufficient number of minority professors in science and engineering who can serve as role models for them. Systemic failures to improve the experience of women, especially minority women, in STEM puts us on an inequitable treadmill off of which we can’t seem to jump.

Minority professors make up a small percentage in academia, making it harder for minority students to find a role model to which they can relate. Photo Credit: NSF

Minority professors make up a small percentage in academia, making it harder for minority students to find a role model to which they can relate. Graphic: NSF

The percentage of African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians obtaining bachelor’s degrees certain science and engineering fields has stagnated under a low 15 percent in the past decade. Graphic: NSF

Diversity in science is imperative

Women’s history month drew to a close last week, but we must not forget to think about women’s equity throughout the year, especially as it pertains to science. Despite a plethora of hurdles in our way, we have made tremendous contributions to STEM fields over the years. Without women in science, we might not have discovered the structure of DNA when we did, experienced the environmental movement leading up to the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, or uncovered the mechanism by which breast cancer manifests itself in our genes.  We need to encourage all young girls to pursue their scientific passions and ensure that the most difficult barriers along their path to success are related to answering the tough research questions rather than feeling inferior to their male peers. The opportunity cost of not retaining women in STEM fields is too great to ignore. Ultimately, we need our next generation of scientists to be intrepid, creative, diverse and abundant, as we face the urgent realities of a growing world and a changing planet.

If you’re a scientist or technical expert of any gender identity, you may be interested in joining the UCS Science Network, an online community of experts interested in advocating for science-based policies.