Science is not supposed to be about gender.
The purpose of science is to allow clarity in a world with very little understanding.
Unfortunately, many in prominent positions of American life have made it about gender.
In 2015, a reporter from Breitbart News published an article called, “Here’s why there ought to be a cap on women studying science and maths”.
We can laugh at the ridiculous concept of it, but science is still a sexist field.
Women are expected to fail because they supposedly cannot handle the competition from being in a predominately male field.
They are expected to either deal with sexism in the workplace, or leave.
Dr. Gillian Foulger works at Durham University in the U.K., and she worries that women are still treated the same way that she was in graduate school during the 1980’s.
Her graduate program gave women 1/10 of the spots that men had.
Her teachers were supposed to be all female, and there were so few women in geology that many of her professors did not know new scientific concepts.
After she graduated, she was refused the same opportunities that men were getting, such as positions at geological societies and oil companies, despite the fact she excelled in university.
Foulger was forced to look for opportunities abroad, eventually becoming a volcanologist in Iceland.
There, she had to continuously deal with sexist and xenophobic stereotypes during her tenure.
At one point, her male field assistant sexually harassed her.
“I had to lock my door at night to prevent him from breaking in and raping me,” she told me over the phone with little emotion.
It was, and still is, a fact that women are commonly sexually harassed during their time in academia.
“This is the sort of thing I have done for science, Hannah,” Foulger said to me as her voice hardened slightly. “I have done this because science is me. I love science. I don’t consider myself really ‘a woman’, or ‘a man’, or ‘a person’. I consider myself ‘a scientist’.”
She accepted the scorn and abuse from her male colleagues in order to further science.
The main argument of the Breitbart article is that the retention rate for women is low, so funding women in science is a waste of money.
The author is not wrong about the poor retention rate.
Women may earn more than 50% of the degrees in STEM PhD programs, but after graduate school, the numbers of women in science begin to decline rapidly.
Dr. Foulger told me that women leave science because “the environment is stacked against women.”
She also said it is hostile to women.
“Women are not in positions where they can help those who are at a more junior level than themselves,” Foulger said. “So of course they drop out! They are forced out! Males expect women to drop out.”
If you also consider that married mothers are 35% less likely to get a tenure track position than married fathers, and 27% less likely to become tenured, you can probably guess why women feel like they cannot succeed in science.
Dr. Catherine Cardelús, an ecologist at Colgate University, has a similar perspective.
“The author [of the Breitbart article] does not look at the heart of the problem, which is that women do not have the support or infrastructure that they needed,” Cardelús said.
When Cardelús got her PhD in 2002, she was married with children to another professor, and she said that the men in her program expected her and the other women to fail.
Luckily she and one of her friends, who was also a mother, made a deal that they would not drop out of their program.
Despite the discrimination against them, the two women received their degrees and pursued success.
The best way to deal with discrimination in science is by creating representation.
“My presence alone as a woman in science teaching tells people that women can do it,” Dr. Cardelús said, leaning across the small wooden table in her office, her eyes full of defiance. “Everybody should be able to do what they want. There should not be barriers.”
Unfortunately, it is difficult to convince anyone to pursue a career in academia when the odds are already stacked against you.
A lot of the time, it is less emotionally draining to leave academia with a PhD and pursue opportunities in industry.
To compensate for the extra pressure women tend to feel in science, it is important to build a community.
While we can succeed alone, science is much more likely to move forward with everyone working towards a common goal—education and progress.
The best way to get more women in science is establishing a community of women from the beginning, and moving past stereotypes to allow women to take on more important roles.
We need to support our women and other oppressed groups as they pursue a career in science, because the inclusion of different perspectives will push science into the future.
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Cover Photo Credit: simpleinsomnia/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)