From 2001 to 2006, the University hired 17 new professors in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics division. None of them were women.
“We were doing a great job of hiring women before, but people took their eyes off of the problem,” said Ishita Mukerji, professor and chair of molecular biology and biochemistry (MB&B). “It was just another incident of unconscious bias.”
Overseen by Laurel F. Appel, professor of biology, Women In Science (WIS) is devoted to raising awareness of current issues affecting women in science. WIS includes faculty, staff, and undergraduate and graduate students, and is open to all members of the University community, regardless of gender or major.
In addition to discussing these issues, WIS also hosts career panels, peer mentoring sessions, guest speakers and poster sessions. In past years, the group has sent a delegation to the National Symposium on the Advancement of Women in Science.
“[WIS] still needs to exist today because opportunities between men and women in science are not equal,” Appel said.
Although women outnumber men in the life sciences, a trend apparent at the University and across the nation, their presence in other areas, such as physics and computer science, is inherently lower. According to Appel, though the ratio of men to women is equalizing in undergraduate and graduate schools, these women are not making it into the ranks of faculty.
At one time, however, the University was progressive in its hiring practices, as qualified women were tenured, according to Appel.
“We must keep looking at the issue and continue to keep up the effort,” Appel said. “If we don’t pay direct attention to it, talented individuals won’t get treated equally in job offerings. WIS addresses these issues and exposes students to them before they enter the workforce.”
Students contend that WIS is an important resource on campus.
“My experiences with WIS have been invaluable,” said Rachel Brown ’08, WIS steering committee member. “It has really helped me navigate my scientific career at Wesleyan.”
Emily Einhorn ’09, a member of WIS, agreed.
“WIS has introduced me to strong women with inspirational stories who have become forces in many different scientific fields, from medicine to research to advocacy,” she said.
According to Appel, much of this gender bias in the sciences is unintentional.
“I don’t think there’s a deliberate bias present here, but an unwitting bias that is hard to get around,” she explained. “There are certain tendencies linked in the brain that we must think consciously to avoid.”
Brown said that even she herself can be subconsciously biased in this way.
“I am ashamed to admit that I myself am often prejudiced against other women in science,” she said. “I am more likely to ask my male classmates for help on homework. Until I have worked closely with a female classmate, I am more likely to assume she is not very good at science. It shows that WIS needs to address and confront these subtle prejudices that exist even in ourselves.”
The University’s physics department is also a cause of concern for some: there are no female faculty members, compared with 6.6 percent nationwide. According to Manju M. Hingorani, associate professor of MB&B and molecular biophysics, and a member of Wesleyan’s task force, the faculty is recognizing and working to change this issue.
Similarly, only 18 of 52 MB&B majors for the Classes of 2008 and 2009 combined are women. According to Mukerji, attracting female students into science is an equally significant issue, and something that she hopes the University’s new science building will help solve.
“The University has a welcoming atmosphere, which not all colleges offer,” she said.
“Wesleyan clearly is not a hostile environment for women,” Brown added. “Nonetheless women are underrepresented at the undergraduate level in fields like physics, and at more advanced levels, even in other areas.”
Though WIS member Christa Vardaro ’10 also noted this discrepancy, she admits that on a daily basis she is unaware of her apparent disadvantage as a woman in the sciences.
“I’ve never been conscious of my being a woman in the field, because I feel like myself and other women are just as capable as anyone else sitting in those [science] classes,” she said. “But WIS does provide a great sense of community.”
WIS has also helped create Action Science Kids (ASK), a student group that visits local fifth grade classrooms to expose them to hands-on science. With support from the Hughes Program, ASK is now its own independent group, enabling its members to teach in classrooms several times throughout the year.
By raising and maintaining awareness of these issues, WIS hopes to remain ahead of the curve.
“The group is essential because it provides services to all students,” said Mukerji. “WIS builds a better community, which, in the end, benefits everyone.”