Men have long dominated the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, often collectively referred to as STEM. In the fall of 2014, biochemistry majors Neila Kline ’16 and Emory Werner ’16 set out to establish a group on campus that would provide a supportive space for women and other identities that have been historically marginalized in STEM fields. They also hoped to increase opportunities to engage in networking. Women in Science at Vassar College (WSVC) was the result, later changing its name to Women in STEM so as to include students from the Math and Computer Science Departments.
“The function of the group is to establish a strong rapport amongst female Vassar students in the sciences,” Kline said, sitting across the table in the Old Bookstore. Werner, in an emailed statement, concurred, saying, “I hope that the club can be a community of students who support each other and who help one another cope with the struggles of being female-identifying in a historically male-dominated field.”
While women now earn more bachelor and graduate degrees than men and comprise half of the national workforce, they make up only a quarter of STEM employees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Although women have won greater representation in the life sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, medicine) over the past several decades, but remain woefully underrepresented in more math-intensive fields (e.g., engineering, computer science). The National Science Foundation recently reported that women comprise less than 20 percent of all computer science graduates.
Computer Science major and head of Women in STEM’s subgroup Women in Tech Laura Barreto ’17 personally attested to this statistic, describing her experience during the summer in which she was one of only three female interns (out of 15 total) at a technology research lab. She recalled an incident in which a male colleague made an offhanded comment in regards to a minority-recruitment system at the institution. “It was a situation in which I was just furious. If I were to say anything, it would only feed into whatever stereotype they had of women, whether it be that women are too emotional, too sensitive or too easily offended to be competent researchers,” Barreto said.
Female scientists have long been under-appreciated by both the academy and society as a whole. Just last June, Dr. Tim Hunt, a British scientist and Nobel laureate, remarked to audience members at the World Conference of Science Journalists, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them [women], they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” Hunt later apologized but maintained his position (The Guardian, “Nobel scientist Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs,” 06.10.15).
For decades, female scientists have been subjected to demeaning rhetoric of this sort in the workplace, along with structural, emotional and sexual exploitation by their male colleagues and superiors. A number of scholars contend that many of the discoveries of women scientists have even been co-opted by their male peers. One such instance was the notable case of James Watson and Francis Crick receiving credit–and later, a Nobel Prize–for the discovery of DNA’s double-helical structure, a discovery first made by British X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin.
Due to anti-nepotism laws that prevented female scientists from gaining employment in the same institution as their husbands, many women were denied access to research opportunities throughout the 20th century that would have otherwise furthered their careers. Although these laws were amended in 1971, their effects can be seen today–women comprise only a fraction of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences and are significantly underrepresented among top levels of research, such as post-doctoral fellows and principal investigators (PIs). The numbers become even smaller when considering women of color, trans women and non-binary persons.
At Vassar, Women in STEM is committed to including students of all marginalized identities in the sciences. “I think that it’s very necessary for there to be a space for not just women, but non-binary and trans individuals, to get together and talk about what it’s like for our identities to affect the way the world views us,” said Barreto.
The group has already hosted several campus-wide events, including two lectures by female scientists and an alumnae panel in early March featuring four female Vassar graduates working in STEM-related fields. The event consisted of an introductory panel discussion, followed by more casual, small group discussions with the alumnae over lunch. Approximately 30 students from a myriad of different majors attended the event. Kline was pleasantly surprised by the overall enthusiasm of the attendees, remarking how many stayed after the panel had ended to continue talking with the panelists.
Natalie DiCenzo ’16, a Neuroscience and Behavior major and one of the first members of Women in STEM, believes it is networking opportunities like this that can make an enormous difference for female students in the sciences. “Reach out to people who are older than you, who might have been in your shoes, because they can be really great resources.” Having strong female role models in the sciences, whether they are female faculty, alums or upperclassmen, can really provide the support and advice needed to succeed, DiCenzo emphasized.
Both Kline and Werner hope that Women in STEM will eventually become part of a larger network of Women in Science organizations on college campuses across the country. The org would be able to participate in webinars, contribute to weekly newsletters in addition to having a larger impact not just on campus, but maybe on a more regional, national scale, according to Kline.
Beyond discussing articles and giving advice on internships and job applications, Women in STEM meetings aim to help members feel empowered, rather than oppressed by their identities. As articulated by Barreto, “Feel[ing] empowered by your identity can carry you a long way when there are people telling you that you can’t do it, that you can’t succeed, or that you’re not smart enough.”