By Laura Early, Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development graduate student
With recent social media explosions around trends like #DistractinglySexy, #LikeAGirl, and #ShirtStorm, challenges faced by women in historically male-dominated science fields are getting more attention. For decades, women have been underrepresented in science, engineering, and math career fields, and there are many root causes to this gender gap that have been identified and are beginning to be addressed. Around the world and across sectors, the emergence of policies, campaigns, and strategies to increase numbers of women in these fields are beginning to be seen.
WiSci: Women in Science is a student-led organization here at UGA that formed in 2014 in response to these challenges. WiSci aims to create a campus-wide community of scientists interested in promoting equality in the sciences, as well as a support network among undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, faculty and other science professionals.
On September 14, WiSci hosted two discussions with Dr. Katherine (Kay) Gross, Director of Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station (KBS). Dr. Gross’s successful career as a plant community ecologist has led her into an administration position where she continues to do research, and also promotes programs that provide undergraduates with research experiences and mentoring opportunities.
At KBS, Dr. Gross strives to offer opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in ecological research early in their academic careers in a way that facilitates their continued success in a scientific career path and positively contributes to the research going on at KBS. Over a lunch discussion with WiSci members, Dr. Gross shared what KBS has found to work well for its program- good mentoring and increasing diversity within the program. To support these practices, KBS offers training and financial incentives to graduate students and researchers who are willing to mentor undergraduates. Because undergraduate students from under-represented groups in the sciences do not always have access to the same resume-building opportunities as their peers, KBS has also adjusted their graduate student application process to focus more heavily on what participants aspire to achieve, not necessarily just their past achievements.
“What is the worst predictor of success in graduate school?” Dr. Gross asked the group of students who joined her for lunch in the Ecology courtyard. “Test scores.” The best predictor, she said, is not giving up. Figuring out why students want to pursue these experiences, and choosing candidates that show a drive and desire to learn and work hard is good for the science community as a whole.
In recent years, there has been a shift in which at several universities, females make up the majority of undergraduate enrollment, and more specifically, female enrollment in science majors is increasing as well. However, there is still a “leaky pipeline,” in that those numbers are not translating all the way through to representative numbers of women in tenured faculty positions across the sciences, or even more so, in leadership positions in the sciences.
In her talk Monday afternoon, Dr. Gross addressed students, post-docs, and faculty - both male and female - about the challenges women face in becoming leaders in science, and how we can all help lessen these challenges. First, we have to recognize the traits of a good leader, and we have to recognize gender differences, Dr. Gross explained. There are some personality traits that are more common to females and some that are more common to males, although each individual is going to differ. Figuring out how these traits in each person complement those of others to build good leadership and research teams is key, Dr. Gross pointed out.
Dr. Gross acknowledged that there are stereotypes against women in science careers, and that people have implicit gender biases. “You need to have a sense of humor,” Dr. Gross said. In order to succeed, she offered, you need to identify the hindrances and figure out how to work around them. At the same time, though, she encouraged all scientists to create a supportive network for peers as well as scientists early in their careers.
“This is everybody’s issue,” Ecology faculty, Dr. Amy Rosemond contributed to the discussion. Men, as well as women, need to stand up to their peers to change these implicit biases against women in the sciences.
As graduate student, Caitlin Conn, brought up: How do we balance fitting in enough to navigate the system in place, and fighting the current system and its inherent biases to change things for the next generation of women scientists?
WiSci: Women in Science addresses these questions and more through our discussions, panels, workshops and mentoring program. To become part of our campus-wide network and take advantage of upcoming events, email firstname.lastname@example.org or explore our website wisciuga.weebly.com
Women in Science Leadership: Pathways and Potentials by Kay Gross, Director W.K. Kellogg Biological Station