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.