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Friday, January 21, 2022

Wisconsin Science Festival: Pursuing science in a male-dominated field

Every year, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery hosts the Wisconsin Science Festival, a two-day event where many local organizations set up activities for Madison-area children. Throughout the day, they also schedule a variety of talks centered on topics in science.

During my visit, I attended a talk by writer Eileen Pollack. She discussed her recently published book, “The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.” Pollack was very interested in science as a young woman. She attended Yale University and graduated with honors as one of Yale’s first female physics majors, dreaming of becoming a theoretical physicist. However, after experiencing a discouraging and isolating time in a male-dominated field, she decided not to pursue her dream and instead went to graduate school for creative writing. She found a successful career in writing, but she was drawn back to science during a conversation with former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, when he wondered why so few women pursued STEM careers. Curious, Pollack decided write her book exploring both her own experience in the '70s as a woman in science and current-day trends and attitudes toward women and minorities in science.

Is there still a gender bias against women in science? As a female UW-Madison student majoring in the sciences, I am bothered we still need to ask this question. It can be easy to say in the 21st century, gender bias is a non-issue. Yet, during Pollack’s talk, I found myself relating to many things she said: teachers discouraging girls’ abilities in STEM fields, women being the only or one of few females in an Advanced Placement science or math class and other such subtle instances. I clearly remember in elementary school when my teachers told everyone that boys were just naturally better than girls at science and math. I genuinely believed in this notion for several years; why would I question something my teachers told me was “scientifically proven?"

The statistics of women in science are even more alarming. In 2015, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that in the biomedical sciences, the average starting funding package for lab groups led by men was more than double the amount women received. Nationwide for physics Ph.D.s, only one-fifth are earned by women, and every year only about a dozen African-Americans and 20 Latinos earn them.

What could possibly cause these discrepancies? One factor, Pollack believes, is women simply do not get the encouragement they need. Like me, many women were told at a young age it just was not expected for them to do better than men in science and math. The lack of encouragement and belief, Pollack argues, snowballs from there, until many women feel disproportionately inadequate, or as if they are working too hard for too little return. Another factor is the lingering idea of women being associated with home life. While there is no shame in choosing to devote oneself to home life, there are still expectations that all women must remain involved with the household while somehow balancing the demands of a full career. This unrealistic pressure also stops many women from pursuing the sciences.

The solution to these problems could happen at many levels. A large part begins by simply changing attitudes. Encouraging girls from a young age to explore their interests, admitting there are problematic attitudes toward increased diversity and affirmative action and acknowledging the need for feminism could all go a long way toward preventing the alienation of women and minorities from the sciences. Pollack also advocates a reform of graduate school for all genders; in her view, the work demands of graduate school are unrealistic and unhealthy for men and women, and essentially force them to choose between work and a family or social life.

Despite the possible solutions she offered, I was still left at the end with the feeling of having no clear solutions to the issues women and minorities face. It is clear there is a problem of gender bias in science, yet these problems seem so subtle and deep-rooted that it seems difficult to find a strategy to overcome them. Perhaps Pallock is right in that reform must be done on all levels, but sometimes these solutions can only be found case by case, person by person. Ideally, if societal attitudes were to change, it would result in the greatest change, but society changes by increments, helped along by implemented policies and most of all, time.

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