It started with pollinating the petunias near the front door of my family’s southern California home. There wasn’t much real science education in my elementary school of the late 1960s, but we read a chapter about Gregor Mendel’s experiments in our science textbook that year. Finding inspiration in that fundamental life science research, I had to try it out myself. So I set out to cross-pollinate them. My parents were encouraging, but slightly puzzled. Something must have worked because the petunia color and variegation changed with time. Did I have proper controls, procedures or keep a record? Of course not, I was just a girl child fooling around with the plants in her front yard. But that is how STEM careers begin. Some phenomenon in the natural world inspires a child to wonder and play.
Forty-five years later I am still wondering about science and still playing at it after a fashion. Little did I know that playing with those plants in the front yard would lead me into the plant sciences and a twenty-year career as a college professor at a small research university. The journey was inspiring, challenging, and discouraging, all seemingly at the same time. As I reinvent my former academic life in an alternative science career path as consultant and entrepreneur, I have had the time to reflect on the realities of women in science.
Nearly thirty-five of those years ago, I was a graduate student at North Dakota State University, an 1862 Morrill Act Agricultural school in an EpSCOR state. That time in the 1980s is what I think is the third significant decade of women in science beyond the pioneering women of the first half of the 20th century. For the first time, we had something of a critical mass of women in STEM between the remaining pioneers and those of us of in the first through third waves. The area and even the surrounding region as an agribusiness center in the rural upper Midwest seemed full of STEM women. With 3 colleges, a USDA laboratory, software firms, engineering firms, and other STEM based-industries, it is no surprise that the Fargo-Moorhead Women in Science and Technology Forum arose from the women working in many STEM fields. The Forum hosted regular networking luncheons and sponsored such events as the Expanding Your Horizons Workshops to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers. As a graduate student, I attended these luncheons and participated in those workshops.
Those luncheons, workshops, and other events sparked conversations around a variety of topics:
- Encouragement of girls into STEM fields
- Need for more women in the STEM workforce
- Equal Pay Issues
- Equal Resources Issues
- Maternity/Family Leave Policies
- Having it all and the Work/Life Balance.
We as graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty talked about these issues all through the 1980s. We discussed them well into the 1990s in our offices, labs, scientific meetings, and everywhere scientists gather. A few conversations were loud and public, but many more were private, whispered, and discussed harassment. These conversations continued into my career as a college professor at a minority serving institution, where those conversations expanded to include underserved groups. Social media was in its infancy in those days, but these very issues were discussion topics on the old text-only based bulletin boards and a few list servers. The release of the MIT Study initiated by their own senior women STEM faculty confirmed what we suspected all along, that it came down to unconscious bias. The first version of the AAUW’s report, Why So Few, opened our collective eyes. My involvement in these issues reached its peak as a member of a scientific society’s committee on minority affairs and as a PI of an ADVANCE leadership award. I fought the good fight, paid my dues, and have a few scars to show for it. So why are we having the same conversations in 2014 as 1983?
In 2014, we are a mere eight years from the centenary of the 22nd Amendment. As a bit of a history nerd, it seems to me that the early reformers and Suffragettes thought the getting the vote would be enough to ensure equality. Fifty years ago, President Kennedy signed the equal pay act. His remarks are both visionary and sobering. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s pushed women to raise their collective consciousness to new heights beyond the limits of traditional roles and careers. At the same time, the movement raised issues of equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal rights.
All this work paid off as women have increasingly entered the STEM workforce during my lifetime, enrolled in both undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and received bachelor’s degrees. The National Science Foundation and the AAUW keep track of these things. According to NSF’s latest report (2010), women receive most of the life science degrees regardless of level, but only 20% of full professors are women. In the life sciences workforce, numbers of women are close to parity with men, but in other STEM fields women are largely absent. Still, women comprise only 28% of the STEM workforce. We still don’t have equal pay, but at least it closer to parity in science and engineering careers.
So, why after all this time, do we not have parity in the workforce, pay, and everything else? The answer lies in unconscious bias and research studies confirm it. This is not just limited to the science, engineering, and math workforce, it is everywhere. The efforts to date were and are not enough, including even the failed ERA. Sadly, this was all the easy stuff. One hundred and fifty plus years of multiple social movements in the USA encompassing all of human rights, coupled with some cultural changes resulting in new laws does not erase millennia of patriarchy. Patriarchy is pervasive, culturally entrenched. It’s not going away anytime soon. Issues with motherhood remain too. More than twenty years ago, my university had a tenure clock extension policy for biological or adoptive parents. I and presumably others were advised against taking advantage of it. Our science workforce models in industrial and post-industrial society are patriarchal. New models of home and work life are needed sooner than later. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. Sheer perseverance got women this far and into STEM fields.
Perseverance is the only model women and the underserved have. Perseverance is the hammer and chisel chipping away at the foundations of patriarchy, privilege, and the hidden biases that they foster. This is the hard work yet to be done. Those who persevere inspire others. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s STEM role models for women were few, historically hidden, literary, or dead. Thanks to the pioneers and all the later waves of women in STEM who persevered, this is no longer true. All of us are role models, whether we want to own it or not. We persevere by just being. Just being who we are in our STEM vocations is influential. Such influence is vast. It extends to our colleagues, our students, our families, our friends and acquaintances. Within that influence are the seeds of inspiration; inspiration to pollinate the petunias and now to forge ahead in an alternative science career.