On Building A Community For Women In Science

As a first year graduate student, being called on to solve a chemistry problem at group meeting was nerve-wracking. Walking up to the whiteboard, questions rushed through my mind.

What if it went terribly? Would my advisor and lab mates still respect me? Did they even think I could do this? Could I do this?

Though I survived the exercise, the questions never quite went away. After research discussions with my male colleagues, I was left with a vague feeling of weariness. My energy was spent making sure my explanations were articulate and accurate. Yet I noticed that speaking about science with other women did not drain my energy. I felt like I had to prove my intellect before receiving the same level of respect afforded to my male peers.

While I made respectful and cautious suggestions, my male colleagues confidently argued and proposed highly experimental ideas. This confidence seemed instilled from a young age, bred by a society that encouraged men to share their opinions and rewarded their confidence. The same society had taught me that I should always appear polite and humble.

When none of my reactions were working, I hid my frustrations, thinking that showing emotion would be written off as female weakness, a far cry from the image of an objective scientist. These thoughts slowly formed my awareness of a gender-based divide of expectations and stereotypes.

Doubt seeped in as I replayed my decision to drop my physics major in college, instead pursuing chemistry. I was making mostly B’s and a couple of C’s but as one of only two women in all of my classes, I felt an intense pressure to excel. Did I really leave because I liked chemistry better, or because physics was too stressful? Would I make it through the chemistry graduate program?    

I wanted to understand how these attitudes towards women in science were formed, in myself and others. For months I read and shared with friends every article that mentioned unequal treatment of women in science in the headline. Around this time I met a post-doctoral researcher who was very informed on these issues named Ginny Hench. She was toying with the idea of starting a women in science group on campus but decided against it because of her work schedule.

As I was lamenting this loss to my roommate Jazz, an analytical chemistry graduate student, over dinner, she casually said to me, “Why don’t we do it?”

The seed was planted. We recruited a small group of women graduate students to help us shape this new group and named it UNC Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).

Exec Board 2013

 [Left to right: Courtney Roberts, Jazz Dickinson, Me – 2013 WISE Executive Board.       Photo credit: Andrew Perkowski]

We wanted to create a safe space to sort through our own understanding of implicit and explicit bias against women in science and together find a way to move forward. We decided this space would take the form of monthly meetings, based around a peer-reviewed study or popular article. We felt that grounding our discussions in concrete data would not only provide structure but be useful in conversations outside of the group.

Jazz came up with the idea to also share the life and scientific work of a woman scientist at each meeting. We felt it was important to value the contributions of the women who came before us and always end on a positive note.

As famed astronomer Maria Mitchell put it, “the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.”

Our first meeting covered current statistics relevant to women in science, led by Valerie Schmidt, an organic chemistry graduate student. She presented a myriad of national statistics from amount of PhDs awarded to women to percentage of women faculty to salary comparisons by sex.

Many of us present had heard the claim from our male colleagues that being female gave us an advantage in applying for awards. But we learned that women PhD’s and professors actually received less scholarly awards than expected based on the proportion of women in the field.

This simple statistic sparked multiple calls for more data and carefully designed studies. We wanted to know whether women were equally aware as men of award opportunities, how many women were actually applying for awards and if they weren’t, why not? While every meeting was unique, it was a recurring theme for us to critically analyze and question the data from multiple angles.

We ended that first meeting with Jazz sharing the life and scientific work of Wangari Maathai. Maathai was the first woman to receive a doctorate in East and Central Africa in the biological sciences and who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to sustainable development.

Over the months we discussed balancing work and family life, unconscious bias, mentorship, female tendencies to undervalue their contribution and many others. I led a meeting on stereotype threat, finally able to define my anxiety in situations where I might fulfill a negative stereotype about my group. Each discussion was guided by a member on a volunteer basis. The discussion leader brought their own personality and gained affirmation from the group’s thoughtful engagement while members grew confident in articulating their opinions.

Member participation was key to our success and we were very deliberate in providing opportunities to lead special projects. The goal was not only to encourage active investment from members, but to help them develop leadership and organization skills outside of laboratory research. This way we could promote women in science in tangible ways and not just through rhetoric.


[WISE booth at the UNC Science Expo, Spring 2013]

We’ve also been involved in two large science outreach events in the community, both organized by motivated student members. We demonstrated science experiments for kids and families, sharing our passion for science and physically representing the idea that anyone can be a scientist.

In December, we elected new leadership and as graduating members Jazz and I passed the reins of the group onto amazingly dedicated younger members. Over the past 18 months, WISE has become more than just a meeting ground for discussions. It has become community of trusted allies. They are women and men who are learning how to speak up for themselves and for others. Leading this group, I have seen strength and brilliance in our members and finally in myself.

Summit on Women in Science – Cliffnotes

This past Monday I had the pleasure of attending a Summit on Women in Science sponsored by a number of women’s groups on campus (special shout-out to UNC WISE for killing it, really appreciate everyone’s hard work).  It consisted of 3 panel discussions populated by successful and thoughtful women and men scientists fielding questions from an audience still navigating towards futures unknown. The morning was packed with so many insightful and useful sound bites that I was kicking myself for not live tweeting the event.

So here’s a taste of the awesomeness you missed (I’m going to pretend all the speakers use their full name as twitter handles)

Panel 1 (Identifying Mentors, Building Networks, and Developing Leadership Skills):

@sharlinisankaran 2/3 science PhD students end up in a non-science field – you are not alone!

@billkier and @abigailpanter must have healthy publication record to achieve tenure, networks are crucial to keeping you focused on meeting that goal

@sharlinisankaran highly recommends this book – “How remarkable women lead” by Barsh and Cranston

@abigailpanter get your advisor to introduce you to people of interest, need to identify them before arriving at large conferences – smaller conferences are better for making connections

@abigailpanter good leaders really care about their employees and don’t waste their time

Panel 2 (Career Paths in Science):

@rebeccapogue medical writing is a female dominated field (~75%)

@jennifermccafferty my job is kind of like herding cats (on realizing her strength was seeing potential connections and coordinating very diff personalities)

@donnadecapita my meetings are about real stuff #howitshouldbe

@sheilakannapan as an undergrad wrote an essay on how physics is driving women out, put a copy in every faculty’s mailbox, got away with it and realized undergrads were untouchable #sheistheshit

@sheilakannapan astronomy is much more welcoming to women than physics

@donnadecapita men and women have different communication styles, women tend to talk through their thought process, diversity and inclusion needs to be vocally identified as a benefit to everyone – in response to a male audience member’s question “what are we doing that makes women feel uncomfortable?”

@donnadecapita stand your ground when you believe you are correct

@donnadecapita men need to call other men out on the spot if they witness a woman being treated poorly #amen

Panel 3 (Balancing Work and Life):

@ioanapopaburke worked on the original patent for Z-Tamoxifen (basically she’s a rockstar)

@carolarnosti took no maternity leave b/c taking a semester off from teaching also means no health insurance – terrible catch 22 that has since been remedied in UNC’s policies

@ioanapopaburke ask for help when you need it, your colleagues will be more receptive to you asking for their understanding rather than denial of your exhaustion

@petermucha congrats or welcome to hell (before answering a question from a new assistant professor)

Then I posed my own question to the panel – Given the grad school culture of working insane hours, as professors do you think this attitude should change and can it change?

@petermucha there are people who really will work 100 hours/week, and they will probably publish and do more work than you, as long as they exist the culture will remain

@petermucha the magic bullet – the word no – say no to things that do not add to your professional “bank account” of success

@carolarnosti had a student who would come hang up his jacket every Saturday morning and then went kitesurfing, everyone in lab knew – if you want to go kitesurfing, just go, DON’T pretend you’re in lab

@carolarnosti a student can work any form of irregular hours, the key is just that they get the work done

@petermucha work smarter not harder and embrace your own culture!


All in all, it was a great way to spend a morning, glimpsing down the paths others have taken and thinking about how certain aspects align with our own desires. I will say one thing about graduate school, for better or worse, you get 5 years to figure out what you’re going to do when it’s over, and with events like these, you don’t have to do it alone.

An analytical approach to unconscious gender bias

No two graduate school experiences have ever been, nor ever will be the same from survivor to survivor. Looking past the fact that individuals have unique responses to any situation, lack of consistency across graduate school experiences is inherent to the research funding scheme at universities. Thus, grant obtaining PIs hold close to complete autonomy over the lives of their graduate students.

Recently, our campus’s Women in Science and Engineering group conducted a very thought-provoking discussion around “what the ideal student looked like” to science faculty based on our own experiences.  Collectively, we agreed that professors value: putting research above all else, self-motivation, a strong work ethic, a high tolerance for neglect (my favorite contribution from someone in the group), assertiveness, confidence, efficiency, self-serving/promotion, leadership skills, intimately familiar with the literature (all your meals are spent reading ASAPS, right?).

We then compiled a list of resources that our advisors possess and can offer to us: mentorship, projects, publications/authorship, undergrads (a blessing or a curse), awards and graduation. Logically, professors can then bestow these gifts on students as they please, likely on persons displaying these “ideal” qualities.

In terms of gender, we identified a couple of characteristics, assertiveness and self-promotion, which seemed to be traits acceptable in men, yet people felt uncomfortable when women displayed the same characteristics. Some even view this negatively. I thought this served as a brilliant exercise to identify potential subtle bias against women in science.  It allowed us to synthesize general cultural sentiments into very well-defined arguments with possible outcomes. My friend Debbie once told me that naming something is a powerful thing, and is especially helpful when engaging in the unconscious gender bias debate. In some situations, I have encountered varying amounts of resistance, either in 1) defensiveness (unfortunate because an accusation is not my goal) or 2) requests for concrete, detailed and reproducible proof of said bias (typical scientist’s reaction to any debate, well, perhaps not the latter given the state of supporting infos, am I right Blog-syn?)

I think being able to recognize and articulate issues that women face in a factual, logical manner is really critical to garner active support. The challenge is that some of the factors that contribute to a “chilly” atmosphere for women may be subtle social cues and perceptions (from either party, i.e., stereotype threat), which are tough to establish.*

Finally, I enjoyed that the session concluded not with cookie-cutter answers but with probing questions that I think would be valuable for any graduate student to ask themselves.  What resources do I need to be successful, am I getting these resources, and what can I do about it? Once you’ve pinpointed these things, you may be able to ask your PI what they want to see from you in order for you to receive these resources.


*[Notice I mention nothing about babies and women in science.  While certainly valid, that topic has been done to death so I’d rather discuss in the more nebulous reasons behind the gender gap.]