Women are largely underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).  To tackle this problem, groups around the University of North Carolina’s campus, throughout the Research Triangle, and across the country have dedicated themselves to the advancement of women in STEM.  Women In Science and Engineering (WISE).  Women in Science (WinS).  Graduate Women In Science (GWIS).  These groups all want to fix the leaky pipeline, develop future leaders, encourage the next generation, and strive for work-life balance.  Yet, despite being a woman in science myself, I did not always identify with this cause.

As an undergraduate, I regularly received emails eagerly inviting me to participate in events hosted by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).  One week, a prominent female scientist would be invited for a seminar; the next, the group would host a networking dinner. However, even with the lure of free food, I never attended.  I did not understand why we needed a group dedicated solely to promoting women in STEM.  No one had ever told me that I couldn’t do math because I was a girl, and I had never felt outnumbered in my science classes by my male peers.  Also, the name of the group made it sound exclusive: The Society of Women Engineers.  It felt like a treehouse with a big, “No Boys Allowed Sign” at the entrance.  By promoting one group, were we excluding another?

It was not until after graduation that I began to understand the importance of visibility.  Children learn about what they can be based on what they see. For example, a child who has just spent the day spotting clownfish at the aquarium excitedly babbles away to their parents about how they want to be an aquarist or a dolphin trainer.  Children who go to the planetarium and spend a few hours among the stars come out wanting to be astronauts.  Be it from life, a book, or television, the characters we encounter throughout our lives shape our hopes and dreams.  It is not until we get older that we start to notice what is not there.  While there will always be tenacious individuals that strive to be “the first”, and pioneers that balk tradition, for many, it’s hard to believe you can be what you can’t see.  If a young girl never meets a woman in science, how are they going to know that science is an option? Thus, until we reach equal gender representation in STEM-related fields, we need organizations focused on promoting minorities in order to reinforce their presence.  Women in science organizations create this visibility and proudly proclaim, “Yes, there are women in science, and you can be one too!”

While it is important for these groups to provide a safe and supportive environment for women to express their concerns, in order to address the gender disparities in STEM, men need to be part of the conversation as well.  Yet, for every women in science related event I have attended here at UNC, male attendance remains low.  So I ask the reader, how can we counteract the notion that these events are exclusively for women?  Are men interested in these events but fearful of saying something wrong?  In the shadow of Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s comments about his “trouble with girls”, and the subsequent demise of his career, it is probably not hard for men to imagine that the women in science are sharpening their pitchforks for the next ill-placed comment.  If this is the case, how can we create a space where women and men will speak freely?  Only through open communication can we identify the problems that allow gender inequality to persist and move toward a permanent solution.

Peer Edited by Rachel Haake & Ashley Fuller

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This article was co-published on the TIBBS Bioscience Blog.

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