“No one has asked ‘Where are the men’?”: A Conversation about Women in Science

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According to researchers from the University of Melbourne, it will take 16 years before the number of scientific papers published by women reaches the number published by men.[1] Women continue to be underrepresented in the sciences, including in elite laboratories, leadership roles in universities, and in the field. We talk with three members of Chatham’s science faculty to shed some light on this complex topic.  

Cara Gillotti, Senior Writer at Chatham University: Can we start by introducing yourself with name, subfield, and number of years at Chatham?

LMJ: I’m Linda Johnson, I do botany, ecology, and environmental science, and now I’m in sustainability. This is my tenth year at Chatham.

LL: I’m Lisa Lambert, this is my 34th year at Chatham, and I’m a geneticist.

EMW-H: I’m Erin Marie Williams-Hatala, I’ve been here for 5.5 years, and I’m kind of amorphous – I’m a human evolutionary biologist; I love and teach anatomy; and I research biomechanics.

CG: What are some misconceptions people might have about women in science, and what would you say to put those misconceptions to rest?

LL: We’re all very different people. I think people tend to put “women scientists” as a group in one little bin, like we’re all alike.  

EMH-W - We’re just another population. There’s as much variance in women in science as there is in any other large population. There’s no one way to categorize us.

LMJ: There’s also this idea that math is hard for girls, when the fact is that girls score the same as boys in math in high school. We perform on par, but there’s something that happens along the way that changes the outcome in terms of how many women are working in science.  

CG: What are your thoughts on what that thing or things are?  

LMJ: There have been studies and stories about women in some of the sciences experiencing a non-productive work environment.  If the story that gets out is that it’s uncomfortable to be in that discipline, as a young girl you might be asking “why would I want to be in this discipline, then?” I think some of it is that history.

LL: A few years ago I was at a conference with a number of women my age who were in positions of authority in various universities, and they were still complaining about the young women coming up, saying “Well, they didn’t have to go through what I went through. They want time off to have a baby. I’m not going to give them that—I didn’t get that.” The very people who would be most supportive are not always the ones going up to bat for changes. (to EMH-W) Do you find that women are supportive?

EMW-H – Some are; some are decidedly not. We have an ongoing issue with sexual harassment and misconduct and there’s a real divide. It doesn’t follow age, or institution, or anything you think it might. Some women are very supportive of reform, and others have the attitude Lisa was describing, as “Well, I had to put up with it.”

Dr. Erin Marie Williams-Hatala

Dr. Erin Marie Williams-Hatala

LL: Even here at Chatham, where we pride ourselves on being based in our all-women’s history, the first time I was department chair, I had senior faculty come to tell me that it would be impossible to do the job married with children. One of them specifically said “That’s the kind of thing you give up when you want to go into science. You can’t have it all. I gave it all up to do this. You can’t do it.”

CG: What do you see as some of the drawbacks to the underrepresentation of women in science?


LMJ: It’s important to have female mentors out there so that you can see yourself moving in that path. If there aren’t women there, it’s that much harder to envision yourself doing it.   And there are subtler things, about what we know. For example, Watson and Crick are the two men celebrated as having discovered the structure of DNA, but Rosalind Franklin was the woman who first understood the structure of DNA and imaged it. And she has no recognition for her contribution to this amazingly important find.

LL: Even in Watson’s original biography, he dismisses her in very cruel terms. The drawback is that, again, there’s no inducement for women to be part of this society that doesn't recognize them. And you’re also losing half your brainpower, without women in science. Think of all the potential great scientists, great ideas and great thoughts you miss out on when you exclude half the population. We’ve got to do more to get the really bright people and bright ideas into the fields that desperately need them.

EMW-H: Not only getting us in there, but creating an environment that values us once we’re there. You need input from people who have lived experiences of a variety of different women-- there are basic biological needs, like places to nurse, and consideration of other parental needs. You need people who have had those experiences and are more likely to understand the unique needs that come with them in order to provide those spaces. 

LMJ: It also changes what you study. If you want to look at the health of a certain group of people, if you don’t think that maybe some of the people in that group might be breastfeeding or menstruating, you might not consider those factors as being relevant to your result.

LL: It’s a constant battle, even for women. Just yesterday, we had our research methods course. I invite faculty to come and talk about their research to the class. Well, I put together a list of volunteers, and it suddenly hit me at the very last minute that everyone on that list but me was male. And it wasn’t due to any other fact other than pure coincidence. You have got to constantly think about it.  

Dr. Lisa Lambert

Dr. Lisa Lambert

CG: Have you noticed implicit/unconscious bias in yourself at any point?  

LMJ: Because I went through my training in the sciences when I did, I have blanks in knowing about the scientific contributions of women. I don’t have those names that I can pull up as quickly as I can Watson and Frick. I have to think about how to make sure that both males and females in my class recognize the contributions of women. Because it’s just as important for the males to see female representation in the sciences. 

EMW-H: Where I pay attention to my own bias is in writing recommendations. I know studies show that people are more likely to use superlatives when describing the abilities of males and use terms that are softer and more community-based language when talking about women.

CG: What can we do to foster a more equitable field?

EMW-H: We need to get women into higher levels of administration. We need to make sure that the people who make decisions about hiring and promotions are cognizant of the realities of pregnancy, and the realities of life after pregnancy.

LL: Documentation is, I think, part of what we need to do. More open processes, transparent decision-making, whoever’s making them, is a better way of getting equity. We talk about old boys in the back room, well, I don’t trust old girls in the back room. I don't want a back room at all. I think we’ve made some steps in that direction here at Chatham, but I’m not sure that that’s true across the country.  

EMW-H: I think we need more diversity in general. In terms of gender, gender identity, race, socioeconomic considerations. Our students are so diverse; the faculty should reflect that as well.

CG: What can Chatham do to encourage women to study sciences?

EMW-H: I feel like we do a lot of things. We have a lot of women on our science faculty, and I think our female students are becoming confident with the idea of women scientists. But we don’t do anything, to my knowledge, around women of color in the sciences. I think we need to be intentional about it. People used to be unintentional about incorporating women, and we became intentional, and now we need that same intentionality around not only recruiting students of color, but also making them feel they belong. Maybe they’ll need a little more encouragement to ask for that research position, or maybe they’ll need a community, because there’s a higher likeliness that they came from a community where they didn’t have those mentors.

Dr. Linda Johnson

Dr. Linda Johnson

LL: We need to educate families and communities about job opportunities, especially with first generation communities. The first question is “Can you get a job to support yourself?” And the answer is frequently “I know healthcare is hot – if I go into healthcare, I can get a job.” So we need to do a better job of showing non-healthcare-related science jobs, in our advertising, on our websites, and in interactions with guidance counselors. Part of our problem too is that Chatham is still facing the challenges of our growth. We’ve done a great job growing, but dealing with those challenges leaves us less time, at the moment, for outreach. I’m hoping that once we become more accustomed to our larger numbers that we will be able to do more outreach to K-12, communities and other initiatives like that.

LMJ: We have some great role models. We did a panel a few years ago with our alumni. But we need to do more outreach to our alums, to women who have been successful in these fields to help show that you can do these things and do them well, and do them with style, too.

EMW-H: The science department holds approximately one seminar per month to broaden students’ exposure to the work people are conducting in the sciences. I’ve been organizing it for the past few years, and I almost exclusively bring in women. No one has asked “where are the men?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2004956