What are the highs and lows for women in STEM this year?
The Field Prize: Maryam Mirzakhani became the first female winner for the prestigious Field Medal in mathematics. A bitter sweet moment, to tell the truth, because for whatever reason no other woman has received the prize since its inception in 1936. I couldn’t help but ask why, and wonder how many other outstanding women have been overlooked when it comes to prestigious awards in STEM?
Freeze your eggs now: This is the year we learnt that instead of providing a supportive work environment for childbearing employees, tech companies like Facebook and Apple decided to offer them the “benefit” to freeze their eggs. To whose benefit is this, really? Because otherwise women cannot commit to their work? So that the company can hire or promote those who don’t have children until later in their lives? Will women who decide to freeze their eggs now still keep their jobs later on if they do on on to have children? And who is going to take the responsibility if the frozen eggs lose their ability to be fertilized?
And no surprise that Microsoft CEO’s great advice to women is “Don’t Ask For A Raise, Trust Karma.”
#GamerGate: We saw the Gamergate controversy – it was a big mess. Was it really about Ethics In Games Journalism? Then how did it spiral into online harassment and threats of physical harm toward mostly women in the gaming industry, including Anita Sarkeesian who was interviewed in the YouTube video below? It got so bad that even FBI is apparently investigating this.
Let’s talk about Women in STEM: This is the year that we learnt talking about being a woman in STEM could be more difficult than you think, as experienced by these three female MIT computer scientists. Did they brought it on to themselves? Would things have been different if they avoided the gender topic? (Probably not…) You are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
The silver lining? As mentioned by Victoria,
And don’t worry, there is a silver lining: if you go to visit the AMA now that it’s over, most of the more intrusive jabs and demands have been downvoted into oblivion, leaving many questions that did focus on science, tech, academia, and what it’s like to be a woman in these fields—such as this redditor who asked whether or not the three women are treated differently than their male computer scientist colleages, for example.
#ShirtStorm: We watched the Rosetta mission and the landing of the Philae probe on a comet becoming the top science story of 2014. Only this celebration was dampened by an absolutely inappropriate shirt born by one of the Rosetta scientists, Dr. Matt Taylor, during the media brief.
Perhaps not intentional, and an apology did follow. But it makes you wonder how nobody pointed it out to him, and how subtle these situations could be.
Or perhaps the story really is this…
Nobody deserves to be treated this way.
Opting out: This year, for the first time, a well-educated man said to me, “What’s the problem with having only 15-20% of women in physics? They probably just chose not to go into physics and astronomy.” and then went on to argue how it is so unfair to men that there are more women becoming medical doctors now.
- The increase of female students in medical schools (the ratio is about 55 to 45, female to male now) just happened in the past decade. Not to mention, males are not exactly “under-represented” in the medical field – unlike the 20 to 80 female to male ratio we see in physics and astronomy (probably worse in computer science).
- Males still dominate the higher up, senior positions like department heads.
So then, why do we need more women in STEM? It is a diversity issue. It is an ethical issue. It is about keeping the best and the brightest in STEM, regardless of their gender.
Well, he is not the only one who thinks so. Oh no. Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci wrote to the New York Times Sunday Reviews about their recent published research paper, Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape (Ceci, Ginther, Kahn, and Williams). In Academic Science Isn’t Sexist, they said,
Many of the common, negative depictions of the plight of academic women are based on experiences of older women and data from before the 2000s, and often before the 1990s. That’s not to say that mistreatment doesn’t still occur — but when it does, it is largely anecdotal, or else overgeneralized from small studies. As we found, when the evidence of mistreatment goes beyond the anecdotal, it is limited to a small number of comparisons of men and women involving a single academic rank in a given field on a specific outcome.
Why then, do we not see more women in some STEM fields? In their research paper, they said, sexism isn’t the problem – women are simply choosing to opt out! It is their own choice!
The cause of this is not that women applicants are not being hired, but rather that they are choosing to opt out of academic science.
I wrote a 4-part series on how gender bias in science is studied. While I agree that many of the studies relied on anecdotal data, we do have experimental data demonstrating that junior scientists with female names are less likely to be hired into intro science careers. Some additional digging shows that the research work by the team could be questionable:
Ceci and colleagues are simply looking at the outcomes of women’s STEM careers in comparison to men’s, without adequately measuring how these outcomes arise, and how they’re connected to broader socio-economic patterns in society.
I still hear about teachers who told females students that they can never be physicists (one of my coop students told me that – and she is an Honours physics student now, thank goodness, because she is awesome). I still hear from friends who said that there is no way they will be able to have children right now, given the structure of their tech companies.
It Is not a choice If they don’t see the options.
Not just a woman’s problem: My friend Eric Mills, a physicist and the illustrator for Cartoon Physics, talked about gender issues in his comic strip, Witnessed – covering the sexism he witnessed himself (I highly recommend the comic strip). For example,
Why did he touch on this subject? He said,
Well, because the burden of speaking out about sexism in science and society should not fall only to women. We all need to do our part for a more equal world. And because I still meet men who say they do not see sexism in science, and hence do not see why we should be doing anything about it. To those men, I suggest that perhaps you are simply not looking.
More and more, we see discussions about women in science not just by women anymore. We see these discussions becoming about people in science, about how we should treat each other – and really, that is what this is all about. I love where we are going.
We can do more: This is also the year that we saw a growing number of initiatives to support women in the technology industry. For example, Ladies Learning Codes hosts workshops to introduce website development, coding, even Arduino and electronics to women and youth. There are now organizations such as Women in Communications and Technology, that supports women with careers in communications, digital media, and technology across Canada. In UK, the Athena SWAN Equality Charter aims to work with institutions to address gender issues in science. In fact, the process of becoming a charter member is an opportunity to create a better work environment:
Although I was aware of many issues, the Athena Swan process has also been a bit of an eye opener, and made us all think. Does this meeting really need to be after work? Are we actively pushing our women forwards for senior roles? Do we ensure a good mix of invited key-note speakers to the Institute? We are addressing these areas. And importantly, with the help of our new maternity mentors, we are learning how to deal with the “bump that dare not speak its name”; this is the awkward situation whereby no one knows quite what to say about a pregnancy, for fear of doing the wrong thing.
– in How to create a better future for women in science by Professor Tom Solomon is director of the Institute of Infection and Global Health at the University of Liverpool, and professor of neurology at the Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust.
We also heard about the recent announcement that Fabiola Gianotti, an Italian physicist and the former spokesperson for the ATLAS experiment (yes, the one that discovered the Higgs Boson), will lead CERN, where the world’s largest particle collider resides.
More Women in Science illustrations, please: And just the other day I was thinking about why we don’t have more animations or graphics representing women in STEM (the “Einstein” representation of physicists just don’t work for me anymore). Thanks to Katie McKissick who contributes to the blog Symbiartic, I was introduced to the wonderful illustrations by Rachel Ignotofsky. (Check out Katie’s blog post Women in Science Illustrations for an interview of Rachel). Now, can we have more of these?!
Even Google Doodle is paying some attention to diversity. This year, many female scientists are featured, including Ada Lovelace, Rachel Carson, and Grace Hopper.
2015: There will continue to be ups and downs for women in science in the coming year. But with each step and each discussion, we are engaging more in thinking about women in STEM – or perhaps, about making STEM a better environment for every single one of us.
Did I miss anything? If I did, please feel free to leave a comment below!
Updated at 8:57am on Dec 31: I totally missed May-Britt Moser receiving the Nobel Prize! And a few other achievements that deserve to be celebrated, highlighted by discov-her: A look back at the inspiring achievements by women scientists in 2014.
Updated 11am on January 2: We also lost a few great scientists in 2014. See Gone in 2014: Remembering 10 Notable Women in Science by Maia Weinstock.
Updated 9:30am on January 7: Fast Company put together the 9 Giant Leaps For Women In Science and Technology In 2014. Worth reading.