Marie Solis contributed reporting.
Historically men have dominated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, but women have started to catch up in recent years. On Nov. 8, Strong House hosted an event titled “Conversations with Women of Physics and Math” to explore this gender inequality from the perspectives of Vassar faculty.
The event was the second in a series of conversations organized by the Strong Floor Fellows. This year’s Strong House Fellow, Professor of Biology Kelli Duncan, came up with the idea as a way to add meaningful programming to the house and the rest of the Vassar community. Duncan based the events on conversation formats often used to educate younger students about the sciences. “I decided that these types of conversations could be expanded to include college students as they start to focus on which major they choose, what they can do with that major, and what life after Vassar may look like with a STEM degree,” Duncan wrote in an emailed statement.
“Females in STEM can have a difficult path ahead of them, and I believe mentorship is key,” she added.
Duncan cited current statistics recently released from the White House, which attribute 41 percent of all PhDs in STEM fields to women, who then go on to make up about 28 percent of all tenure-track faculty teaching in those same disciplines.
Duncan continued, “We are very lucky to have many female faculty in the STEM field here at Vassar, many with varied career paths and life choices, and these conversations can help to better inform Vassar students about the future that lies ahead of them.”
To organize the event, Duncan worked with the Strong House post-baccalaureate fellow, Elizabeth Ruiz ’14, who coordinates programming.Ruiz explained that the event is meant to reach not only Strong residents, but the entire Vassar community. “[W]e try to get the word out to as large an audience as we can,” she wrote. “In this way, we connect these conversations to others happening elsewhere on campus, while opening Strong up to the Vassar community as a space where these conversations can be held in a comfortable and somewhat informal way.”
Ruiz and Duncan also work with the Strong Floor Fellows to gather student input and promote the event to as many students as possible. One of the Floor Fellows, Julianne Johnson ’16, discussed the importance of the event, even for those who might not be considering careers in the sciences. “Personally, my current interests don’t lie within the STEM umbrella, but I’ve loved going to these conversations not only to get a better picture of what it’s like out there for fellow female students and educators, but also just to get a chance to listen to someone talk about their life for a little bit,” Johnson wrote in an emailed statement.
She continued, “I think my favorite part of these conversations comes at the very beginning when the professors talk unprompted about their personal and academic lives—it’s a type of storytelling experience that I haven’t had many other chances to participate with on campus.”
The organization of the event itself consisted of small group presentations and subsequent conversations. Five female-identified professors from Vassar’s Physics and Math departments presented their experiences and opinions on the issues at hand. Each professor introduced herself, after which students were allowed to ask any questions they had.
At Saturday’s event, Duncan opened the conversation with an introduction of the conversation series and the professors present, who each spoke on their experiences before and during their time at Vassar.
Professor of physics, Cindy Schwartz, remembered the inequality she encountered while getting her bachelor’s at SUNY Binghamton. “I double majored in math and physics,” she said. “No one ever suggested I go to grad school even though I got straight As and had won the physics prize…At graduation I saw my male peers graduating with honors because they had written a thesis. No one had ever told me that you needed to write a thesis to graduate with honors.”
On the topic of the expectations of women to raise families, Visiting Assistant Professor Lynn Scow recalled the gender inequality she witnessed in her time in graduate school. “In UC Berkeley there weren’t a lot of women who had a family or kids, so I didn’t see it as a recipe for success…As a woman, your personal choices are always up to scrutiny in the professional world in a way that men’s aren’t.”
In their years spent at Vassar, not all of the professors reported having bad experiences. Assistant Professor of mathematics Ming-Wen An Wissmann noted that her field of statistics is generally more evenly split along gender lines, and this was reflected in her reception at the College. “In our department at Vassar, I think it is a supportive department in general and my experience has been positive,” she said.
For Scow, participating in the event was a chance to engage with female students who might face unequal gender expectations about their career choices. “I’m really interested in events that encourage women to see themselves working in fields that use mathematics,” she wrote.
Scow continued, “It is such a shame when anyone self-selects out of a math-based career because they feel they don’t belong, and maybe they could have really enjoyed it and done great work…Because there are fewer of us [female mathematicians], I think it is important to try to be more visible.”
Strong Floor Fellow Ruby Pierce ’16, noted that despite Vassar’s forward-thinking reputation, issues of inequality in academia are important to discuss on campus.“I think that Vassar likes to believe, collectively, that it is a place where issues of sexism and gender inequality are non-existent,” she wrote, “So much so, these things are considered a non-issue, and we hardly ever talk about them as conflicts pertaining to our own community. We have to keep talking about these inequalities, because they are real, and they are actively damaging our chances of success—even at an institution founded for women.”
Ruiz echoed Pierce’s sentiment, noting that her time at Vassar did not provide sufficient discussion of the issue of female underrepresentation. “This event, and others like it, are important to hold because the women in STEM experience is largely unrepresented on Vassar’s campus,” Ruiz wrote. “As a biology major here, never once in my four years did I feel as though there was a space to have these conversations, to share experiences and deconstruct assumptions.”
She continued, “Individual STEM fields and their subdisciplines have different expectations and cultures, which is why we host different departments each time. It’s important to have these events to foster solidarity between faculty and students on campus, and it’s vital that students entering a career in science, science education or education, be aware of the assumptions that they will face, and how to deconstruct negative expectations or respond to specific negative challenges regarding being in an underrepresented group in a STEM field.”
Regarding the future of the conversation series, Duncan hopes that the collaborations this semester will continue throughout the academic year. “We plan to continue the department discussions as well as at least one presentation on the history of STEM research and accomplishments from female VC faculty,” she wrote. “We’ve also started talks with the Women’s Center to bring in outside speakers and to expand the conversations to the faculty as a whole (i.e. not just female faculty).”
As for the future of mathematics, Scow noted that some progress is being made. “In my own field, I think that the number of women has been growing,” she wrote. “There is still work to be done, and work is being done, on issues of implicit bias in hiring and family-friendly policies in the workplace. I don’t want to say these issues affect all women, but they will affect some women very negatively, and it just isn’t necessary to be losing people from the field for these reasons.”
She continued, “I always found the hierarchical or competitive aspects about math culture off-putting.” Scow stated, “I think you can feel this regardless of gender identification…But math is math! See what your relationship is to math before you let someone else define it.”
Pierce concurred with Scow’s sentiments, noting that careers in STEM fields have begun to seem more approachable. “And as for female-identified individuals who wish to have careers, this kind of conversation opens up a whole world of possibilities,” she wrote.
“I, for one, have always subconsciously felt that the key to success was to emulate the white businessmen,” she continued. “Being in a room with such wise and accomplished women has introduced a new possibility—to emulate them would be to synthesize my female identity with my ambition…Success, in STEM or in any career, does not have to be white and male. Success can be a woman, and I can be success.”