Picture this: A woman walking down a corridor with a tape measure, trying to hide it as she passes you by, and then you find her secretly measuring the area of the rooms in the building. Is she crazy? No.
“She” is Nancy Hopkins, a pioneering MIT molecular biologist, who in 1994 wanted to prove that her lab was of a smaller size when compared to her male colleagues. Thus began the fight for gender equality in science, a male-dominated discipline that couldn’t adapt fast enough to the changing tides.
Let’s fast-forward to the present day. As a woman in science myself, I couldn’t understand the struggle of those before me, nor did I actively try. However, as I crawl towards the end of my doctoral studies and look towards the next chapter, I begin to understand the phenomenon of the leaky pipeline – the decline of women in STEM fields with each step up the ladder.
The 2020 film, “Picture a Scientist“, brings to light the reason for this phenomenon, taking us through a 30 year long (and continuing) journey of gender and racial bias, harassment, and institutional discrimination, making us aware that even those searching for the scientific truth can still fall victim to their personal fallacious beliefs.
Women were, and still are, treated as inferior and their expert opinions dismissed, not because of their lack of intellect or achievements, but due to their assigned sex. However, the discrimination is not always overt. The documentary expertly shows the subtlety of the issue and surprises you with the finesse of the harassment. Do not think of sexual advances or assault, but more along the lines of constant exclusion – being made to think that you do not belong.
Could you visualize a world where women were forced to conform to unfounded gendered roles and stay away from science? To start, the structure of DNA itself might not have been discovered in 1953 if not for the contributions of Rosalind Franklin who used X-rays to precisely capture the infamous Photo 51. Another scientist who requires a mention is Katherine Johnson, an American mathematician whose input was instrumental in the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and whose story would not be known if not for the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. With just a miniscule glimpse into the contributions by women scientists, the simple answer to my earlier question is No. A world without women scientists cannot, and should not be imagined.
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of women in STEM fields as technicians, graduate students, post-docs, and group leaders. However, the number of women with permanent positions has increased much slower, as many women opt out or are overlooked at the highest levels. From a Bachelor’s degree until Graduate school, the overall ratio of women to men in STEM is ~50%, with this number slowly and steadily declining once they enter into the workforce. Women are extremely under-represented in academic leadership roles, occupying less than a third of the positions. Similarly, men continue to dominate the STEM field worldwide, with a dearth of women in leadership roles in the Technology Industry, and Scientific R&D. In Germany itself, only 33% of scientists and engineers are women. In the US, apart from women making up only 28% of the science and engineering workforce, we are faced with another level of discrimination – race. Women of colour (Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, American Indian/Alaskan Native) make up only 11.5% of this group while making up 27% of the US working age population. The issues of gender exclusion stem from a variety of sources, ranging from deep-rooted societal biases, sexism in the workplace, discrimination due to childcare, and lack of women role models.
The future can still look bright though. The gender gap is closing thanks to the long and ongoing efforts of all the strong women in science seeking to level the playing field for the next generation of scientists irrespective of their gender. However, we need to pick up the pace.
Women, a lot of this responsibility is also ours now! We need to use our voices to forward and continue the changes that are already happening, and support each other.
As more women are opting to further their careers in STEM, the environment is being forced to become more accommodative by including childcare options, emphasizing a work-life balance, removing the gender pay gap, and openly addressing other issues. However, there is also the need to depict more women role models in these fields, so that the young generation of scientists are instilled with a curiosity for science, without the underlying discrimination.
Having recently celebrated women in science and today being Women’s Day, I urge you to promote mind over gender and stop the leak.
PS: If your busy schedules permit, watch Picture a Scientist and be transfixed and terrified all at the same time!