To observe International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Feb. 11, The Argus spoke with female-identifying faculty and students in the sciences at Wesleyan to understand the experience and unique challenges that come with their positions.
During their interviews, many students and faculty brought up implicit biases that everyone holds, as well as smaller yet important barriers that women students have to overcome, like hesitation to ask questions in the classroom or to approach professors one-on-one. Despite biases, a high percentage of undergraduates who identify as female major in the sciences. According to Director of Institutional Research Michael Whitcomb, 292 of the 563 current undergraduate STEM majors—52 percent overall—are women.
“I could hardly wish for a better situation,” said Biology Chair Ann Burke. “People seem to be extremely conscious of trying to establish a gender balance, even if we aren’t there yet.”
Challenges for Woman Students
Still, woman STEM majors have faced challenges in navigating academics at the University. Carli Poisson ’18 highlighted the experience of taking big introductory classes, which varies dramatically from professor to professor—and student to student—so the level of support and comfort that each student has can encourage or deter them from pursuing a STEM major.
Gender diversity and individual experiences also range widely among departments. The distribution of women students across STEM fields differs significantly based on major, with fields such as physics, computer science, and math demonstrating much lower percentages of women majoring in those fields, as compared to fields such as microbiology, neuroscience, and chemistry, which are more evenly distributed, or even skewed toward higher numbers of women than men. Despite this numerical majority, a variety of factors still discourage underrepresented minorities from joining STEM majors.
“I think sometimes it’s the professor, sadly,” noted Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry (MB&B) Ishita Mukerji. “Sometimes it’s the peers, where you can have some study groups where they’re not welcoming to women…. The feeling for a lot of women and underrepresented minorities is that it’s just so hard to be that one person in the room, or the one person in the group, and then comes that additional burden of feeling like you’re representing your whole group, when you’re really just one person.”
Recent alumna and chemistry major Stacy Uchendu ’17 concurred with Mukerji’s assessment of student discouragement.
“It’s not an institutional thing, in terms of the University,” she said. “With some professors, I felt like I was less seen or underestimated, and that was typically with older male professors who maybe should have retired several years ago.”
Women students face other deterrents that operate in more latent ways.
“One of the things that I think happens, and that students should be aware of when going into graduate school, that if you have a more traditional mentor, they may not push you to publish in really good journals the way they will their male students,” explained Burke. “I think that’s something that happened to me. I was clueless at the time, but in retrospect. And certainly not that it was conscious on the part of those men, but that is what happened.”
According to Burke, prejudiced professors can work to improve their behavior, as long as they are made aware of their own implicit biases.
“Recognizing [biases] in yourself is not pleasant at all, but it’s really important so that you can accommodate for them and change your behavior,” she reflected. “I try to actively think about that because all the implicit bias applies to me as to anybody else. So it’s something that I try to be conscious of and I hope that I do a reasonable job with that.”
Challenges for Faculty
Along with female students, women faculty also experience disenfranchisement and discrimination in STEM fields. Representation of women among the STEM faculty is significantly lower than students at about one third: only 29 of the 92 STEM faculty members are women. Associate Professor of Chemistry Erika Taylor noted that her own internal drive, rather than external support, was key to her success as an undergraduate and graduate student.
“The thing that was to my advantage is that I am an extrovert, and so I was able to go and seek out interactions, and find people who would be good mentors,” Taylor said. “A lot of what I got was what I ran after and made people give me. I wanted to be at [Wesleyan], where it was easier to make those connections, where I could help provide that support and encouragement and help find students that might not have known that they would belong in science or belong in research, and tell them that I could see that they did. That’s sort of why I’m here.”
Professors also commented on the expectation of masculinity in STEM fields, and the complicated territory of expressing femininity while still appearing professional.
“I think there’s some issues that face female instructors in particular in certain fields because there’s sort of a battle between what’s expected of a woman in terms of personality, approach, and what’s expected in physics,” said Assistant Professor of Physics Candice Etson. “What do you think of when you think of a physics professor? It doesn’t match up what you think of when you think of a woman. So you kind of pay a penalty either way. Either you’re too feminine and not enough of a physicist, or you’re too masculine and that can be offensive because you’re supposed to be a woman.”
Taylor later shared a personal anecdote, recalling a male colleague at a conference rudely questioning whether she deserved her position at Wesleyan, or if she had just been hired because she was a woman. Although he apologized ten years later at the same conference, she commented on the self-doubt that those types of harmful, pointed interactions can introduce into women scientists’ minds.
“That whole thing, the whole conversation, just should never have happened,” she stated. “Our gender shouldn’t be some anomalous asterisk that somehow increases or decreases our status in whomever’s eyes it’s perceived through.”
Beyond professional setbacks and frustrations, Etson discussed the difficulty of juggling her career pursuits and her desire for a family.
“There’s definitely this issue of how to have a full life, and still go through a tough undergrad major, graduate school, probably a postdoc, before you get a tenure-track job or a good job at an industry,” Etson said. “I had my first daughter while I was still doing my second undergrad, and then I went to grad school with a kid, and then I had my second daughter while in grad school. I think that people don’t always understand the challenges of anybody who’s got kids, but in particular, a lot of times, there’s just certain things that tend to fall on a mom, and how to juggle that stuff is tough.”
MB&B Chair Amy MacQueen expressed similar sentiments, reflecting on a lifetime of support in her professional life but gendered expectations in the domestic sphere.
“Even with the most progressive of my friends and partners, as you get older, have a family, you tend to have these little challenges, mini-challenges, but challenges nonetheless of roles, and trying to work out what your partner expects you to be,” MacQueen said. “Even if they encourage you to be a workforce person…what you expect to be in terms of a mom, and a person who makes dinner, they seem so little and trivial, but I didn’t have the mentorship, as a younger person, to know: Well, what do I expect of myself? What do I expect of my partner? And where am I going to draw the line?”
Along the same lines as discussions of motherhood, professors and students brought up income level, race, and mental health as they intersect with being a woman in STEM.
“Almost every woman that is a professor here in the sciences right now probably had a white male mentor who was supporting her, just because of the demographics,” Mukerji noted. “They are highly supportive—I think some people are not, and they need to change their attitudes…. There are a few holdouts that make it difficult, but…in general, attitudes about wanting to bring women and people of color forward, that’s an attitude that I think most of our faculty have.”
In addition to the more obvious goal of a diverse student population, Burke explained that improving the representation of underrepresented groups among faculty has become more of a priority in the past four or five years.
“[When hiring new faculty,] we’re really looking for racial diversity, and that has been hard to find,” she commented. “The rule of thumb is that it’s because the pipeline has been so empty for so long, there just aren’t that many underrepresented students coming through that are now ready to go into the job market. Though that’s partly true, I think it shouldn’t be an excuse. We should be out there really actively searching and recruiting.”
Beyond faculty diversity, some departments have realized that their material is less accessible for low-income students. For example, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Victoria Manfredi explained that students who don’t have access to a fast computer often find themselves at a disadvantage in computer science courses.
“A lot of students’ Windows machines are cheaper, and it makes it harder to actually be a computer scientist, using Windows,” she explained. “So they already are getting some obstacles.”
Poisson, too, highlighted the added challenges of low-income students. She explained that because of the major time commitment, low-income students can find it difficult to find work in a lab, as many of the positions are unpaid.
Other students working in labs may find that having a mental illness puts them at a disadvantage in the workspace. MB&B and College of Integrative Sciences (CIS) major Olivia Hutter ’18 addressed this, noting that she appreciated her lab space as an understanding environment, but recognizing that other students might not be so lucky.
“I’m in a wonderful lab with wonderfully understanding PI [Principal Investigator] and grad students, who allowed me to take the steps back that I needed, and then gave me the opportunity to come back into the lab when I felt like I was ready,” she explained.
Melisa Olgun ’20 elaborated on the difficulties confronted by women who are also members of other underrepresented groups in STEM fields.
“If you’re a woman in STEM, who is also work-study, who is also an underrepresented race or ethnicity or whatever, there are a lot more pressures on you that is not just going to work and figuring out a schedule,” she said. “It’s an uncomfortable conversation to be like, ‘I am a woman. This is what I feel like when I’m in this upper-level chemistry class and there are no other women around me.’ That’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, but it’s also a necessary conversation, because to open that ground—to be able to talk about what you’re facing—allows people to become more aware and so allows people to improve.”
Looking to the Future
“You can’t make someone care,” said Poisson. “You can have as many mandatory meetings as you want…. We need more collaboration between the STEM side of campus and the humanities-sociology side because I don’t know if I and other people studying science have the tools equipped to take those structures apart and rebuild them. I think it’s really good to have these spaces like WesMaSS is creating, of collaboration among people in the field, and then people outside of the field who are used to looking at structures like this.”
Many students and faculty recommended on-campus resources and offered advice for other women who are seeking to enter STEM fields, but may be unsure of what the field entails. Hutter noted that at Wesleyan, there are a number of organizations for minority groups in STEM fields, many of them under the umbrella of the Natural Sciences and Math (NSM) Coalition.
“Use those resources and reach out,” she said. “We’re lucky that we have wonderful faculty here and a wonderful environment, but there’s still always things that can be tweaked a little bit, and the first step is becoming aware that there’s a problem and then working to fix it.”
Olgun also commented on minority representation in STEM, particularly when it comes to racial diversity.
“There’s [little] representation in professors in STEM—but that’s also a nationally known problem, and so the solution is wait 15 years and see who the new professor is, or which new faculty get dragged in,” Olgun lamented. “So you need to think about what happens in the meantime, what can you do in the meantime.”
In addition to advice, University professors and students commented on what they viewed as positive aspects of the Wesleyan environment, which, many noted, is more inclusive than other institutions. For example, Wesleyan has a number of institutions for students, and especially minorities, in STEM, including WesMaSS (Wesleyan Mathematics and Science Scholars Program), the McNair Program, STEM Zone, and WesWIS (Wesleyan Women in STEM). The NSM Coalition is working to standardize the process of becoming a TA as a way to promote diversity among student TAs.
Taylor noted that she believes the University is making steps forward.
“Since I started in 2007, the diversity of mentors in the sciences has really increased,” she said. “The number of women that have been hired, and the number of minorities—though [those numbers are] not as good.”
In addition to recent boosts to the racial and ethnic diversity among faculty, Uchendu highlighted the fact that minority students often join together to help and support one another, offering a sense of community outside of official organizations.
“There was a small group of us—women and women of color in the sciences—and we’d all study together, hang out together,” Uchendu said. “The need for students who are minorities in their majors to get together, to coalesce. A peer group to study with and hang out with and generally commiserate with is, I think, instrumental in success in your major. And not just success, it’s being emotionally stable and mentally healthful, and I think it’s really good to have that. I don’t know if that’s something departments can do, in terms of encouraging groups to form, but it’s something I think that’s really important to have.”
Hannah Fritze ’18 also stressed the value of community, especially when reflecting on her experience as an astronomy major.
“We’re all really close, and whether it’s something you need or not, it makes you acknowledge everybody as people more,” she said.
Despite the great strides that the University and the country has made in recent decades, obstacles seem to persist.
“It’s always challenging for women in STEM, and other minorities as well,” said Mukerji. “This is not a new problem.”
Hannah Reale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @hannahereale.
Emmy Hughes can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacelover20.