By George Sells
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.
They gathered at an event on a recent Thursday night in St. Louis. The party atmosphere, dubbed “Beer With A Woman Scientist,” was one part happy hour, and 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 pod, and wants to provide the inspiration for this sort of work that she, frankly, 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 my of her counterparts. She’s 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. She says it’s often the little things that stand out.
“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. So there have been small moments like that.”
She says she joined 500 Women Scientists because she wants to help change that. She believes there is a culture change that is necessary, 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 Francis Crick – two men.
“So you hear about Watson and Crick, right, who discovered DNA. I know, maybe that’s not something everybody talks about,” she says, laughing. “You know I grew up hearing about DNA and Watson and Crick discovering it, but you don’t really hear about the roles that women played.
“Rosalind 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, “Rosalind Franklin was there. She helped.”
And from there comes the seemingly simple but clearly vital task of producing numerous and visible role models for girls and young women in the science and technology fields.
“I think a lot of us who grew up studying science, a lot of women growing up studying science, felt a lot of times they didn’t see people who looked like them, representing them in science,” Young pointed out. “It’s sort of intimidating trying to pursue a career where you’re not seeing a lot of women.
“Girls have a proclivity for science and math a lot of the time, but if they’re not growing up where they see other women in those positions and think, ‘Hey she is so cool. I want to do that just like her.’ Or if they’re not an environment in their school or their house where they’re given access to toys that would encourage them to explore that interest. So, some people might be excellent in science and math and not even realize it.”
The two agree that 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 touch at eight become science majors at eighteen, then 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. So it will take all those women getting there before those changes start happening.”