The Uphill Battle of Women in the Sciences

The Uphill Battle of Women in the Sciences

Woman technologist

I recently communicated with one of my connections within LinkedIn, “catching up” and commiserating with her on the direction in which our preferred software platform (Lotus Notes, or whatever they call it, that we both program in) is going in the ever changing marketplace. What’s really interesting is how we originally “met” on LinkedIn – we are both nerd girls that like to program and we agreed to “stick together”!

As a former chemist, I’m always interested in hearing about other women in science and technology. Still to this day, I am in the minority, if not the only woman, in the room of a technical session. If the feminist movement of the 20th century has taught us anything, it’s that “the personal is political”; I often find that the best illumination of field-wide trends to be women’s ground level experiences.

Eileen Pollack’s (via The New York Times) is particularly illustrative, especially of the fact that bias against women in tech-y fields has not abated since her own school days in the early ‘70’s. (link)

The one-time student of physics at Yale, and now novelist and professor of creative writing, tells the story of the dearth of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) from her perspective. She felt unprepared for physics at Yale from the get-go, having had to rely on her own auto-didactic efforts when her high school teachers refused to let her into higher science classes, because “girls never go on in science and math.” Through her own efforts she graduated summa cum laude, but was not encouraged to pursue graduate studies, and was so demoralized by her experience that she never returned to the field.

Though there are more support systems for young women studying sciences today, Pollack still uncovers a “slow drumbeat of being under-appreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success” that chases many scholars away. (The quote is from Meg Urry, astrophysicist and current chair of the Yale physics department.) Pollack continues:

I was dismayed to find that the cultural and psychological factors that I experienced in the ’70’s not only persist but also seem all the more pernicious in a society in which women are told that nothing is preventing them from succeeding in any field. If anything, the pressures to be conventionally feminine seem even more intense now than when I was young.

I can think of many instances in my life where I had to fight others’ assumptions about my chemistry and technical talent, because of my gender, but I’d hoped things had changed for the new generation. Here’s hoping the field soon learns to appreciate women in science — the more minds at work, the better for all of us!