Women in the science profession are banding together, searching for ways provide inspiration to a younger generation, and end what they say is clear gender inequity in their community. The group calls themselves 500 Women Scientists.
Their recent event, “Have a Beer With A Woman Scientist,” was one part happy hour, one part science fair. The latter was on display with tables occupied by female scientists conducting experiments for wide-eyed kids, many of them little girls.
Those young girls are both a target demographic and a point of passion for women like Kristen Oncken. She’s one of the early members of the St. Louis group, and wants to provide the inspiration for the sort of work she did not receive as a child.
“It’s really exciting to me because as a kid, my mom was in design,” Oncken said. “So me wanting to be a scientist, I didn’t have a female in my life that could be like, yes, women can be scientists. We can be good scientists. We can be in charge of things. I didn’t have that support and there weren’t organizations like this when I was a kid.”
Earlier in the day, in a biology lab on the campus of the University of Missouri at St. Louis, Emma Young said her route to a career in science was a little easier than many of her counterparts. She’s currently working on her PhD, studying the way malaria is transmitted between birds. She says she did have support for scientific exploits at home, but slowly began to see that being a woman in this predominantly male field has more challenges than it should.
“I’ve talked to folks before and said something offhanded about DNA and had someone try to explain that to me,” she said about interactions with some men in the field, “and [I am] like, well actually I work with it a lot. I really do know what I’m talking about.”
She says she joined 500 Women Scientists because she wants to help change the current culture. She believes there is a necessary change, aimed at including everyone when teaching the sciences.
One example Young pointed out was the role of a particular woman discovering DNA, a discovery usually only attributed to James Watson and Franics Crick – two men.
“Roselyn Franklin played this key role in the discovery of DNA. She actually photographed the structure of DNA for the first time. And when you hear about DNA discovery it’s Watson! Crick!” Then she mumbles, “Roselyn Franklin was there. She helped.”
And from there comes the seemingly simple but clearly vital task of producing numerous and visible role models young women in the science and technology fields.
“I think a lot of us who grew up studying science felt a lot of times they didn’t see people who looked like them, representing them in science,” Young said. “It’s sort of intimidating trying to pursue a career where you’re not seeing a lot of women.”
Oncken and Young agree lifting up girls is just the start.
The business world is the next step. As an analytical chemist for a pharmaceutical company, being in the minority stood out to Oncken the day she walked in the door. She was one of just four women out of fifteen new hires. It became more pronounced as she moved up the corporate ladder.
“I never really thought it was a concern until later in my career when I started being put in leadership positions and saw that people reacted differently to me in meetings than they did a man who said the same thing that I just said,” she recalled. “You say something, and then a man says it and everybody is, ‘Yes! That’s brilliant!’ And I’m like, ‘I just said that!’”
The 500 Women Scientists group was formed in 2016 and came to St. Louis in 2017. They hope to balance out gender inequity with education, followed by numbers. If the girls they reach at eight become science majors at eighteen, they believe they will change this field with sheer numbers.
As for the workplace culture issues they point out: it depends on who you ask, but many fear they will take longer.
“I think we’ll see a shift first in there being more women. But the kind of cultural problems that exist in the sciences I think will lag a little bit behind unfortunately,” Oncken said. “So it will take all those women getting there before those changes start happening.”