What is unique about the picture taken in 1927 at the Solvay Conference: a gathering of the elite physicists and chemists of the time?
There’s one lone female. In 1927, that was impressive, but if you look a many group photos from university departments in science, math, and engineering today, there is likely to be just one female for the same number of people as the 1927 Solvay Conference. Now that is pathetic.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe often said that “well behaved women rarely make history.” It’s true, even in an academic setting. Fortunately, academic departments make it easy for women to be viewed as misbehaved or notable. Often times, if I consider alternative interpretations and approaches from senior scientists, I’m viewed as “lacking in confidence ,” but if I become overly passionate about an issue and don’t change my opinion after hearing alternative viewpoints, “I’m being defensive.”
Some of the more ludicrous commentary that I have heard about from female colleagues is being begged by administration to not have children so as not to increase risks for postpartum depression.
And then of course there is sexual misconduct. One world-renowned neuroscientist made himself “Instagram/Twitter/Facebook famous” at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in NOLA in 2012 by lamenting about the lack of attractive females at the meeting. It may had been the booze and easy access to prostitution talking or the fact that we shared the convention center with a boating trade show, but still. A recent report in PLoS found that at least 50% of women encounter some form of sexual harassment, verbal or physical, at some point in their professional career.
Now how can we overcome? My colleague and mentor of mine, Dr. Jenny Marcinkiewicz, who has served on STEM- and women in science-related tasks forces recommends the following, “We can educate both our male and female colleagues about the dangers and inequity of unconscious bias. We can continue to fund ADVANCE grants from NSF that work to advance the careers of women in science. We can push to create women’s taskforce groups that identify actions to be taken and then make sure these are implemented. IMHO, asking women to work harder and stop making excuses is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It serves to drive capable women out of the sciences. Last, but not least, postpartum depression is not a choice and cannot be solved by simply willing ourselves out of it or working ourselves out of it.”