Friday Feminist Fuck Yeah: Women in Science

Courtesy of Sociological Images, here’s a graph showing the gender of people being awarded PhDs, department by department. As you can see, women are wildly underrepresented in physics, computer sciences and engineering. We already knew this, of course – women are underrepresented at all levels of the “hard” sciences – but when you see it represented in graph form, it’s pretty stark.

I mentioned earlier this week that I spent the weekend at Princeton, listening to distinguished alumni talk about a number of issues, mostly about their career paths and their efforts to balance their work lives and their personal lives. In a discussion of work-life balance led by New York Times writer Lisa Belkin, class of 1982, a young woman stood up and explained that she was a graduate student in molecular science, and that she was pregnant. She said she had no idea how to manage being a graduate student in such a rigorous field with being a mother. She asked, with an unmistakable tinge of desperation in her voice, if Belkin or anyone else in the room had any advice for her. A woman at least fifteen years her senior stood up and said, “I’m a scientist and a mother of three; you can do it.”

When I saw this graph, I thought about that woman. In addition to facing the challenge of balancing a demanding career with motherhood, she also has to contend with being one of the few women in her lab or in her department.

So I thought, since finals are coming up for high school students, undergrads and physics TAs, it might be nice to send a bit of extra love out to those women who look around the classroom or the lecture hall and don’t see a whole lot of other women. It must be hard to feel so alone, and it must be daunting to look up the ranks and see so few women role models. I only hope that you remember that med students, law students and doctoral students in departments that now enjoy relative gender parity once experienced the very same thing you’re going through. Things change slowly, but they change – and when they do, it’ll be thanks to you brave, persistent women who soldiered on even when you were discouraged.

That said, there’s no reason why we here in the Feministing community can’t offer you a little love and support right now. If you’re in the STEM fields, or know a woman who is, jump into the comments section give a little bit of love to our STEM women on this fine Friday.

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39 Comments

  1. Posted May 6, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    No PHD(academia’s fine but does not match me) but a Bachelor’s in Computer Science with a minor in math.

    5 years at a “Redmond software giant” this month! If I can do it, so can you. The guys in software engineering are really pretty tolerable. My husband is doing a startup. Life is a lot of work but good.

  2. Posted May 6, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m not anymore, I found something that suited what I wanted to do a bit better. I think. I hope. I found balancing being a Computer Science major with full-time work and my son to be an extremely difficult task. Projects were due at 9 pm on Fridays and we often wouldn’t get them until Tuesday or Wednesday and I really didn’t have time to put a large amount of work into them in that stretch. I’m pretty sure that I turned in code with comments about needing to return to this section later once whiny, clingy child was in bed.
    There were only a handful of girls in my large intro classes.
    I do miss it. Sorta. But here’s a gal who knows what it’s like and has a lot of admiration for you!

  3. Posted May 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Sociological Imagies is now my second favorite blog (next to Feministing, of course!) I saw this graph the other day, but the reminder to love STEM women we know is always a good one.

    My sister, Shannon, is 17 and wants to go to the University of Minnesota for biomedical engineering. I am so impressed with her for wanting to go into such a difficult field, I look up to her so much.

  4. Posted May 6, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I can speak with a little bit of confidence when I say that there are a lot of men in technical engineering fields that will be very happy to see more women entering the field. Most dev shops I’ve worked happily encourage a higher degree of gender balance. Besides, smart men typically appreciate being around smart women. :)

  5. Posted May 6, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I know two women who are in STEM, and they are deliberately close. Long ago they determined that strength in numbers is crucial, as is solidarity with others in the field.

  6. Posted May 6, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Yay for women in the sciences! I’m a woman engineer in manufacturing, and routinely the only woman in the room. It is really hard to open with that and convince young women that it’s a great field to enter, but it’s rewarding to do what you love against the norm.

  7. Posted May 6, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m very glad to be able to say that (one day) I’ll be a part of the community of STEM women. I would like to go into wildlife sciences or a related major which are both dominated by men. Hopefully by the time I graduate the disparity between men and women will have closed.

  8. Posted May 6, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m a software engineer now working on a PhD in Neurobiology (pretty heavily on the computational biology side, as you might imagine). I feel like I’m in a pretty lucky generation – my martial arts master, my writing mentor, and my first PI were all women and all very prominent and respected like whoa in their fields. ‘course, now I’m in a rust belt university, and gender seems a bit less flexible out here. Still, that initial set of trailblazing has been done.

  9. Posted May 6, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    I just finished an MSc in Physics and there certainly is a lack of women in Physics. The department I was in, seemed pretty good (for the most part) as far as its treatment of the female students, though there were certainly a few profs (and more so the emeritus) who were known to look at men and women differently. Fortunately, the mentors I had did not seem to have any sexist leanings. I think each year it gets a little bit better.

    When I was an undergraduate (at the same university) I found that the numbers were much closer to 50/50. Because of a co-op program I was part of two different years and both years had much more women than the percentage of women graduating with PhDs. Most of them did go on to graduate programs as well, so hopefully that trend isn’t only at my university.

    It is my opinion (based only an anecdotal evidence) that currently, the bigger problem keeping women out of STEM fields is now more about how society in general discourages women from those fields, and not direct sexism of the people of those fields. Though I am certainly open to real evidence that might show that I am completely wrong. I’d like to think that my involvement in my institution gave me a pretty accurate idea of what its like there and that my institution was not out of the ordinary.

    • Posted May 9, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Attitude of some college guys was bad, but my coworkers are mostly good at my current level. There’s still a glass ceiling though.

  10. Posted May 6, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    These charts inspire me to pursue my doctorate in mathematics. I’ve got my bachelors degree out of the way, and I’m taking a year off to do some soul searching. There are days when I think I don’t have it in me, but then I look at these charts and the inspiration returns.

  11. Posted May 6, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Before I forward this to the Molecular Biologist/Chemist who got away, I wonder if my wife, currently in her MSW graduate program, ever wishes fields like psychology and social work WEREN’T as female dominated as they often seem.

    Also, after reading

    ‘She asked, with an unmistakable tinge of desperation in her voice, if Belkin or anyone else in the room had any advice for her. A woman at least fifteen years her senior stood up and said, “I’m a scientist and a mother of three; you can do it,”

    I wondered if that woman encouraging her clarified whether she did it alone. While taking my sweet time entering the ‘real world’ I watched many women take on as much as they thought they could (which is as often too much for women as it is for men) in academia only to resent the school and everyone in it. I worry that statistics like this make women feel like all new territory must be uphill, and that they’ss end up more like an enduring Job than a defiant Lilith.

  12. Posted May 6, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    I’m just finishing up a PhD in maths in the UK. Representation of women in maths seems to vary hugely between different (sub)fields and universities. I’m now looking for a postdoc job and am coming up against the ‘two body problem’; my partner is in pretty much the same position (and field) as me, and getting two jobs in the same city will be difficult.

  13. Posted May 6, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    I got my PhD in physics in 2003. When I was an undergraduate in physics there were a grand total of 2 women in my year. We had deal with some out-dated attitudes from professors (one told his class how to minimize torque and thus at which angle “to beat your wife”) and more dishearteningly from some of our peers. But like in the world at large, where most men like women, most men in STEM are pleased to see more women in the workplace. Don’t let the odd bastard get you down!

    Physics, as an academic discipline, could do a lot more to make it a female- and family-friendly field. Being in such a male-dominated field is what sparked my interest in gender issues. I feel a lot of responsibility to act as a role model, to show younger scientists (of any gender) that there are women in the field and that it is possible to acheive a life-work balance.

    If you’re studying now, know that there are others who’ve been through it. Getting a mentor and networking are things which can really help!

    I think it’s also important to point out that these statistics are culturally-dependent. There are nations in the world and times in history where the gender distribution of PhDs in physics are/were closer to 50:50. So there is nothing inherent in gender which makes this difference.

  14. Posted May 6, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Aww, thanks! I’m doing a PhD in applied mathematics. There is half a woman on the faculty in my department (we share her with electrical engineering). I’ve never met her.

  15. Posted May 6, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for showing the love! I finally made an account just to show my appreciation.
    As a female physics PhD candidate, the reality of my minority status is such an ingrained part of my daily life that sometimes it’s easy to forget that this isn’t an inevitability but is a result of years of culling young women out of the field through both extrinsic and intrinsic messages that women cannot do this work.

    The biggest thing that each and every one of us can do to change the status quo is to let the young girls in our lives know that they’re smart, that math and science are important and that they are totally capable of doing it if they want to. Then give them permission to want to.

  16. Posted May 6, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Woohoo! I’m in astrophysics! Our department recently just had our first Women in Astronomy open forum. It was a great discussion; not just a bunch of fluff spouted by people who already agree with us, and not outright hostile, but actually good discussion from people with varied opinions and experiences. I think it went well.

    Here’s a blog that some of my friends and I write on occasionally:
    http://scientistandwoman.wordpress.com/

  17. Posted May 6, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Yay!!! I’m a woman one of the fields near the bottom of the list (Computer Science)

    Oh, and it’s so true about women in STEM fields being super-close. The reason why I picked my phd school was because it already had an unusually high number of women (still way less than 50% though).

  18. Posted May 6, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    I am a graduate student in ecology, which I suppose would fall under “Earth Science” on that graph (which I find rather strange, since Evolutionary Biology gets its own category). I’m currently getting my MS in Environmental Science (Ecology), and the split is very distinct between the biology (ecology) EnviSci and the physical EnviSci (geology, hydrology, atmospheric sciences). The majority of the women in the department are ecologists, with a few sprinkled in the other sub-departments. I’m the only woman in my lab – we took a lab field trip across state to meet with some experts in our study – I was the only woman out of the six people there.

  19. Posted May 6, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Defended an EE Ph.D. in January. Turned in my finished thesis in February. Got a job at NASA in April. Officially graduating in a week from Columbia University. Woohoo!

  20. Posted May 6, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been an Electrical Engineer for 9 years now- it’s hard, but it’s worth it. For anyone feeling alone as a female engineer, check out the Society of Women Engineers and the great work they do. http://www.swe.org

  21. Posted May 6, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m a graduate student in computer science. I believe taking advanced math courses can be a feminist act.

  22. Posted May 6, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    I’m a young engineer working in research at a Big 3 automaker in a very woman-heavy department and I marvel every day at how smart, funny and awesome my coworkers are and how a female-friendly environment allows them to express these awesome characteristics freely. One of my female classmates is now an engineer at a large steel plant and has had some real awful experiences in her workplace: catcalling, come-ons, flowers left on her car, condescending pet-names. I’m ashamed she has to deal with that kind of shit but proud that she perseveres! STEM women are all kinds of awesome tough and smart!

  23. Posted May 6, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m a recent chemical engineering graduate. While things have been looking up for women in the field, it seems there is still a lot to be done in terms of acceptance of sexual minorities or non-gender conforming folks. Because a lot of attention is drawn to the lack of women in the STEM fields, in a weird way, the gender binary and the inherent thinking that comes with it establishes an archaic view of gender and sexuality within the faculty. From my personal experience, more progressive ideas about gender and sexuality (i.e. gender and sexuality as a continuous spectrum rather than completely restrictive boxes) are underrepresented in the STEM fields among both men and women.

  24. Posted May 7, 2011 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    It makes me happy to see that molecular biology is actually a little over the 50% mark, but there have been some very influential women molecular biologists/geneticists and I think that does make a difference. Let’s go women biologists! I often wonder how we can empower girls to pursue these degrees. From personal experience, I know many young women who feel like they just aren’t good enough at math or science, when in reality they are right on par with their male counterparts.

  25. Posted May 7, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Holla! Chemical engineering student =)

    Just last night I volunteered for a retreat for grade 11 girls who are interested in engineering and science, try to introduce them to the different fields and applications and give them a sense what engineering is about.

  26. Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I’m a first-year computer science major. I love it. Yes, I’m one of, as far as I can tell, four women who are in the program, but it hasn’t made me too uncomfortable. I don’t have any female role models (there’s one female professor, but I haven’t had her yet), but my advisor/current comp sci professor is really encouraging, and he certainly acts like a feminist, although he’s never identified as one.
    My calc class is good about gender diversity. At least half of us are women. (Not so great with racial diversity, though–all 30 of us are white.)
    I do worry about the future. I want to have a family someday. I’m scared about working in software development and trying to be a mother. My mom is a housewife, so I can’t look to her for advice. And I know that there’s probably sexism in quite a few places, so my wonderful college experience may not reflect actual attitudes toward women in computer science.

  27. Posted May 7, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Note that there is a liberal art that ranks lower than some of the sciences, and that’s philosophy.

    Philosophy has an atrocious problem of serial sexual harassment. I refer you to: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/03/30/philosophers_consider_what_to_do_about_sexual_harassment

    • Posted May 9, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      I’m frankly stunned in too many ways to detail here. I can only offer the explanation that perhaps my shock is reflective of what feeds this behavior. The common perception of anyone calling themselves a ‘philosopher’ as either a sheltered nerd or an oblivious hippie might be giving them a all brains-no balls complex.

  28. Posted May 7, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m a geologist who’s finishing up a post-bacc internship at nasa. While my lab’s still primarily white men and I don’t break that pattern, my idols in my science community are largely women. I was very proud to see Earth science at the top of the physical sciences in this chart and judging by the gender ratios of undergrad geologists going on to grad school that I know about, I think we’re only going up!

    I’d suggest a wicked awesome blog/professional group: Women in Planetary Science, with the tagline “Women make up half the bodies in the solar system. Why not half the scientists?”

  29. Posted May 7, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the love :) I received Ph.D. about 2 years ago in computational chemistry, which is still one of the more male-dominated branches of Chemistry. It’s been nice to read the comments from other Feministing readers echoing some of the experiences (both good and bad) that I’ve had in my career and to know that I’m not alone. To be honest, I still struggle with whether this is the right field for me. I’ve encountered men who are unapologetically sexist as well as women who actually seem to be harder on women graduate students than males, possibly trying to mimic the struggles they had as female grad students in male dominated fields. I will admit though, I can’t say that this is directly related to men in the sciences or being in a male-dominated field. As we all know, you can run into sexist men anywhere, so I think I was just unlucky enough to find a large number of them in a small setting. One of my biggest struggles has been attending conferences with people from different generations and cultures where women maybe aren’t given the same courtesies that I expect. I often feel I’m not being taken seriously as a chemist and have even been told, “But you’re too pretty to have a Ph.D.” On the flip side, I am finding in my post-doc both male and female role models. My boss is actually a single mother by choice, as both of her daughters are adopted from China, yet manages to teach several courses, develop one of the few research programs at our institution, and be an incredibly attentive mom (no small feat since her daughters are budding superheroes excelling academically and in several sports). She also treats all of her post-docs more like colleagues than employees, which is a level of respect that I’m not used to. It’s been very nice. So I guess the point is in a male-dominated field, you’ll meet allies and enemies, but that’s no different from the rest of life.

  30. Posted May 8, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Having worked 10 years in the computing industry I’d give this advice to any woman entering the profession: know what you’re worth and demand to be paid accordingly! There was a general feeling amongst the women that they weren’t getting paid the same as the men because they hadn’t been forceful enough at their interviews about negotiating their starting wage …..

  31. Posted May 8, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    As a third year Chemical Engineering Student I’d love to give a shout out to the amazing my amazing Material Sciences and Chemical Process Design Prof. She has been an inspiration to all, particularly for me, as she challenges all of us to be better individuals both academically and personally. She is truly an asset to my department.

    An interesting point, my class of over 50 students is almost exactly equal in both genders. Something like 27/23. We have people from all over the world, of all religions enrolled, and I have met some of the most fascinating individuals right next to me in class.

    As a side question, while this graph clearly shows a clear bias and lack of women in Physics/Computer Science/Math and Engineering (albeit I’d much rather see a graph of the engineering fields broken up), what is the communities opinion of the over-representation of women in psychology?

  32. Posted May 9, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I’m a transgender woman and a scientist. I will never forget what my mentor said to me when I came out to her:

    “We need more women in science . . . by any means necessary.”

    Quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever heard :P

  33. Posted May 9, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I got my Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1999. I’ve been married ten years, have a seven year old son, work full-time as a web developer, and I’ll be graduating with my MS in Physics next May after working on it part-time for nearly five years. I hope to go for the PhD in a few years. I’m the only female graduate student in my department, though we do have a few undergrads and four female faculty members (one of whom is my thesis advisor). Once a month, our department has a women in physics tea and we talk about physics and issues facing women in particular. My proudest moment was this semester when out of class of all men (except for me) I got the highest grade on the first test in my theoretical physics class. I try to be humble, but hey, I thought that was pretty cool! Didn’t do as well on the second test, to be honest, but still got an A for the semester. ;)

    It has been my experience that attitudes are changing. We may not be there yet, but progress is being made. Thanks for the words of encouragement.

  34. Posted May 9, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Some more links:

    Female science professor blog: http://science-professor.blogspot.com
    Geek feminism: http://www.geekfeminism.org

    Female Science Professor in particular has articles fairly regularly on the things that discourage women from being in the profession.

  35. Posted May 9, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    …and this comic coming out today feels like scientastic magic:

    http://xkcd.com/896/

  36. Posted May 12, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I also had to get an account in order to respond to this.

    Thank you. It’s so true that women are badly underrepresented in the “hard sciences.” I’ve heard my whole life that being female means that I’ll never be able to do math and science as well as the boys, why are you trying, isn’t this too hard for you, you’re female, why are you doing science? I’m getting a degree in Geosciences. It made so much difference to have female professors and mentors who were able to have careers, do active research, and have families. Being encouraged and inspired very much kept me going, and I plan to pass this on to my young cousin, who wants to pursue engineering or medicine. The sense of “you are not alone and you can do this” was probably the most important thing out there for a woman in science to hear.

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