STEM Workplaces: The Need for Strong Female Role Models

We are very pleased to have this guest post written by Kelly Barton Ph.D.

I recently watched a PBS NOVA program honoring the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. A small part of this hour long show introduced Astronomer Dr. Nancy Roman. She worked on the design and development of the Hubble telescope for about 25 years. Because of her dogged perseverance in early program planning and her belief in the Hubble telescope mission Dr. Roman is often referred to as the “Mother of Hubble”. During the interviews, Dr. Roman discussed how in the time when she earned her doctorate in astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1949 it was next to impossible for a woman to gain tenure at an academic research institution. After receiving her degree, she worked for 10 years as an instructor and/or research assistant. In 1959, she was asked if she knew anyone who wanted to set up a program in space astronomy at NASA. Upon consideration, she decided she wanted to do it so she could influence astronomy. By accepting this position, Dr. Roman became the first Chief of Astronomy in NASA’s Office of Space Science and the first woman to hold an executive position within NASA among the very few women employed there at the time.

The landscape of women in STEM fields is different since Dr. Roman’s generation. But how much has it actually changed? I entered graduate school in the fall of 2001. During my first year lab rotations, I chose labs based on scientific focus and techniques; all had male principle investigators. In fact, thinking back, a female led lab never made my short list of possible rotations. At the time, I don’t think the percentage of female-led labs in my field was high; even now only approximately 20% of the program’s affiliated labs at my alma mater have female principle investigators. I didn’t find this particularly upsetting at the time; it was just reality. At no point during my graduate career did I ever feel like I was treated differently as a female graduate student by my boss, my thesis committee members or any of the members of my graduate department. I felt encouraged and supported during the sometimes incredibly difficult and frustrating path to a doctorate. If anything, the topic of discussion during my graduate career with my peers was that the women who ‘made it’ into tenure track positions were harder on female graduate students or at least less supportive than expected.

Every person who has hired me on in a lab has been a male. Not too surprising considering women only make up about 30% (on average) of the upper level positions in science. I currently work in a company where I am the only female chemist. We’ve interviewed women for almost every opening and the fit for the position just hasn’t been right. The majority of the time the working environment is on par with anything I experienced in labs with a 50% female population. Are there awkward moments? Absolutely, but no more or less than in gender neutral labs. That is life and the reality of dealing with different personalities and backgrounds, regardless of age, sex or race. I don’t think any woman should be apprehensive to enter a lab or a workplace that is male dominated. Assumptions of the culture can’t be made based on the number of women in the workplace or the age of the male co-workers. The founder of my company likes to have women in his lab and he received his doctorate degree soon after Dr. Roman joined NASA.

Things have changed for the better from the time of Dr. Roman; the NASA workforce is now approximately 30% women. But, science still needs more women. The only way STEM workplaces will close the gender gap is if more women are entering scientific fields regardless if they are mostly populated by males. To help make that happen we all need to be strong role models and foster the talents and interests of emerging female scientists.

This post was written by Kelly Barton Ph.D.   Kelly currently works as a research scientist at Rivertop Renewables, a renewable chemical company based in Missoula, MT. Kelly’s focus at Rivertop is working on new product projects. Kelly received her Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from Muhlenberg College and began her research career studying the structure of the carbohydrates in the proteophosphoglycan coat of the tropical parasite Leishmania donovani. Kelly received her doctoral degree in Biochemistry from Washington University in St. Louis. Her thesis work focused on the biochemical relationships in the eye which can lead to cataracts. Utilizing animal models and mass spectrometry Kelly discovered a new binding interaction and partner for alpha crystallin, the major protein component of the lens of the eye. Prior to joining Rivertop Renewables she completed a post-doctoral training appointment at the National Institutes of Health in the Prion Disease Biochemistry Section of the Laboratory of Persistent Viral Diseases. Throughout her career Kelly participated in many science outreach programs to introduce middle and high school students to science topics not covered in the normal curriculum, hosted students in high school and college for lab internships, and judged numerous local and regional science fairs.

This entry was posted in Be Your Own Best, Corporate America, Lisa L. Mueller, Women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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