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Can We Accelerate the Change? Part 1 #MySTEMrolemodel

27th October 2015
By Guest Author

As part of Digital Science’s celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day, for the month of October we are running a series of blog posts where inspiring women in STEM are sharing their personal role models. Anyone can get involved and we encourage you to share your role model on social media using the hashtag #MySTEMrolemodel. 
melMelanie Hamblen has spent her wholelife interested in Biology. By the age of 16 she had over 14 Peterson guides tohelp her identify all the flora and fauna all around her. She lives with herhusband, dog, chickens and bees between Boston Massachusetts and ProvidenceRhode Island. Currently she is involved in project based support for MobiusExecutive Leadership.

This post is the first in a series. 

When I was in the fifth grade a classmate of mine, Andy, had been made fun of for bringing in rice krispies treats for the class that he had made. The class had a discussion about Women’s Lib and being free to do what you want (this was in the 70’s after all). He said something that I think about when dealing with biases and gender inequality:

“If women can be scientists and truck drivers, why can’t I help my mom in the kitchen without getting picked on?” and then Andy said “It should be called People’s Lib”

I’ve spent the better part of 31 years working in academic research labs and tech/biotech companies. Most recent I was the Manager of Laboratory Operations at a small biotech company in Providence Rhode Island. It was like a playland for me, biological, mechanical, material, electrical, and software engineers all together in one place! So many different people and ideas and processes to learn about. I was encouraged to study everything that was new to me and to become certified in multiple safety procedures and regulations. I designed and implemented a new employee life, bio and chemical hazard communication plan and was in the process of developing a safety training annual update for the company just before it closed unexpectedly a month ago.

One day it dawned on me that there were more women in STEM positions in the company than I had ever seen in a lab so I noted the amount of women in the company and their titles. The biology lab was split in half, 5 women vs. 5 men, and in the engineering group there were 5 women vs. 23 men. These women were supervisors, leads and senior engineers. Would I have seen this 30 years ago when I started in research? No way! The split was more like a 1 to 5 split in the bio lab and I’m not sure there were any women engineers! Unfortunately, there were no women in the higher ranks like Directors and Vice Presidents. We have made some movement toward gender equality but the motion has been slow.

Why so slow? I believe Liz Gaskell has important insight on the public perception of women’s contribution to science.  She discusses a recent survey from L’Oreal, with a sample size of over five thousand people from five different European countries and China. Liz Gaskell writes:

“…our perception that scientists are male is so entrenched that almost half of all women still did not immediately think of a woman scientist” when asked to name one and that “when asked to identify a field that women are well-suited for, only 10% of respondents, regardless of gender, picked science.”

It is intriguing that both men and women do not know about the women who have contributed to science and, “When asked about whether a particular breakthrough was from a man or a woman, 77% of people (78% of men, 75% of women) thought a man, rather than Cecilia Payne, discovered that the composition of stars is 98% helium and hydrogen.”

Another point was made that when picking what role in science a woman would be good at more people thought Biologist over Engineer. Is that because we see more women biologist out in the real world of science now or are there more women biologists because it is an accepted field of study for women? Do we just not see or hear about women engineers anywhere?

An encouraging stat was shared that 79% of men and 89% of women agree that gender inequality in high-level scientific posts warrants people taking action.

So what do we need to do? How do we change the public’s perception about women in science? How do get to the point when all fields of study will be thought of as gender neutral?

Public education is imperative for the tide to change. We need teachers from preschool on through all grades and levels to incorporate more of women’s contributions to science in the current curriculum. It is important for girls to learn about women’s contributions to science so they can be encouraged by like-minded role models and to think that they can become a scientist. It is important for boys to learn about women’s contributions to science so once grown he doesn’t even raise the question about whether or not girls are good at math or engineering.

Campaigns that promote women in science careers now like the #Ilooklikeanengineer campaign should be shared in schools and with your peers. Another way to educate kids and adults alike is for women who are in science to volunteer at schools or for community groups near you. Give a talk and share your passion for your field with others. Maybe then progress will be made quicker and the biologists and engineers whom I have worked with recently won’t have to wait 30 years to notice a difference.

I think of Andy’s comment when I wonder what each and every one of us can do every day to help change perceptions. When I meet a new person for the first time, I try not to assume what they do for a living or be surprised by their answer. I think we all harbor some biases, but it’s how we deal with it that matters. People’s Lib has helped a little, men can be nurses, chefs and stay at home dads now without a raise of an eyebrow, but the perception about careers for women are still biased.

I would be interested in any other ideas about how to change the public’s perception about women in science. Have any ideas? Have you tried anything? How did it go?

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