The truth about women in STEM

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The Women’s Center hosted a film screening of “Picture a Scientist,” through Zoom which was followed by a panel discussion of women in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Photo courtesy of author.

All you want to do is learn, research and practice science, but little did you know as you enter the field, you have to be your own advocate for things like getting the same amount of laboratory space as your male counterpart or standing up to doubts about your competencies and fighting against harassment. On Thursday evening, the Women’s Center hosted a film screening of “Picture a Scientist,” through Zoom at 7 p.m. The film was followed by a panel discussion of women in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields at UConn.  

The film featured biologist Nancy Hopkins, chemist Raychelle Burks and geologist Jane Willenbring. Each woman performs in different areas of science, but all faced challenges while being a woman in the STEM field. In the film, Hopkins talked about being given a smaller workspace for her research and the sexual harassment she faced while teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From her experiences, she became an activist for women in STEM and succeeded in creating a committee to advocate for women’s rights at MIT.  

Burks mentioned that it’s not just about the lack of women’s representation, but the lack of women of color in STEM as well. In the film, she added that people often questioned her competence and skills. Willenbring shared her experience facing harassment from David Marchant, a prominent associate professor, while doing research with him in Antarctica. It took Willenbring 17 years to finally report what happened to her, according to the film. 

Kristin Morgan, an associate professor in biomedical engineering at UConn, says she agrees it is unfair for women to be discriminated against, but tries to have a positive outlook.  

“We can’t control how people perceive us but we can control the message we get out,” Morgan said. “I know as an African American female I am well aware that when I go into a conference or lecture that I am always underestimated. People don’t think highly of me and I think it’s interesting. My family, we try to take it as a positive so that when we do speak eloquently, they are even more shocked and we stand out even more.” 

According to the film, there is a lack of encouragement for women to pursue a career in STEM which can be a loss to science and research. There is always a bias whether it’s explicit or implicit, as women are also paid less despite doing the same work as men, according to a research study done in the film. 

“Regardless of who reviewed [the resumes], the results were overwhelming that women were scored less competent in all of those things and to me, that’s a signal of culture.”

“Regardless of who reviewed [the resumes], the results were overwhelming that women were scored less competent in all of those things and to me, that’s a signal of culture,” said Stephany Santos, associate director of the engineering diversity and outreach center. “It isn’t just males bringing women down. It’s everyone, and thinking ‘Okay, what do we have to do to change the culture.’” 

Panelists said women might find it harder to speak out because they fear losing their job or being seen as aggressive. Santos added that it can be especially hard for minorities to speak out about issues. She also said that departments seem to attempt to self-preserve themselves. One of Santos’ friends at a different institution filed a sexual harassment complaint to their department. However, instead of getting support, her friend said the women at the department decided not to do anything about it because they didn’t experience it.  

“I agree, it’s the idea that you don’t want to be the one to rock the boat,” Morgan said. “You know what’s interesting about this and I definitely feel this way as an associate professor, it’s kind of like you know you’re at the point where it’s like keep your head down, do your work, be as successful as you can and hopefully get tenure, and that’s more of an opportunity to have a little bit more of a safety net to bring up a lot of some of these issues that you see.” 

Advocating at the student and faculty level, creating support systems and spaces for discussion, changing department bylaws and policies are some ways to help create a more inclusive environment for women, according to panelists. Purna Dalal, a student staff member for WiSTEM added that WiSTEM is a great resource for women in STEM on campus. The club creates spaces for open discussions to support women. 

“Oftentimes people assume the Women’s Center is here for students, but we are here for the entire community,” Kathy Fischer, associate director of the Women’s Center, said. “So we certainly hope folks would reach if they are in need of support or just want a place to go to chat.” 

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