Gender Bias in STEM: A Southern Perspective

Gender Bias in STEM: A Southern Perspective

By Cathy Newman

Cathy Newman gives a postgraduate student perspective on how local culture impacts on the careers of women in STEM, and why it’s important for women students to learn about the challenges of gender bias as part of their education and career planning.

Last month, the College of Science at Louisiana State University hosted a Women in STEM event. The event consisted of a keynote address followed by a panel discussion, the latter of which I attended. All speakers were LSU alumni holding or retired from prominent STEM positions.

Panelists were the following:

  1. Dr. Karen Adler Storthz: professor emerita at the University of Texas Health Science Center,
  2. Sorcha Clary: project engineer for Marathon Petroleum.
  3. Judea Goins-Andrews: director of school engagement for Louisiana at Project Lead the Way,
  4. Rebecca Guidry: clinical medical physicist at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center,
  5. Pat Bodin: former chief information officer and VP of global information for ExxonMobil.
Louisiana State University Women in STEM
LSU Women in STEM panel (Left to right): Dr Adler Storthz; Sorcha Clary; Judea Goins-Andrews; Rebecca Guidry; Pat Bodin. Photo: Cathy Newman (copyright)

As a graduate student in biology at a major research university, I rarely have the opportunity to interact with women in STEM careers outside of academia, so I especially appreciated that the panel included women in industry and education/outreach. The panel also spanned a wide range of career stages, from a few years out of college, to retired. Despite the wide range of careers and career stages represented on the panel, the advice to early career STEM women was remarkably consistent, emphasizing self-confidence, assertiveness, and patience.

I live tweeted the panel discussion. Here are some of the highlights.

Building Confidence

An audience member, woman of color, asked Goins-Andrews, also a woman of color, how she dealt with being black in a STEM field: “I walk into biology class [at LSU], and I’m so discouraged.” Goins-Andrews responded with a passionate pep talk about self-confidence, knowing you belong in that seat in that room, and reiterated the importance of finding good mentors. I think this is a vital issue in STEM that is often overlooked; being a person of color in STEM comes with its own unique struggles, and while we so often focus on issues facing women in STEM, so little time and effort is devoted to women of color in STEM. This needs to change.

The issue of self-confidence came up several times – unsurprisingly, as confidence is a major issue that we as women in male dominated fields struggle with often. Across the board, the panelists wished they had had more self-confidence in college and early career stages, and all had struggled with confidence at some point (or frequently) during their careers.

Regarding building confidence, one panelist suggested finding mentors we trust and can confide in – and emphasized that good mentors do not have to be women to be supportive and sensitive to the unique struggles that women in STEM fields face.

As a more specific example of confidence-building, Clary, a recent LSU graduate, said she regularly goes to the gym and lifts heavy weights to make her feel powerful. Certainly this idea is not fit for all STEM women struggling with confidence, but it at least made me realize that in addition to more abstract or long-term suggestions (e.g., find mentors), there are specific, concrete things we can do to help us build confidence, and that the same things will not work for all of us.

Sexism in Southern Culture

A couple of the panelists offered a unique twist on the classic examples of male colleagues questioning our ability as women to do certain tasks. Here in the Deep South, there is still very much a culture of women as genteel and delicate, needing protection in all forms by men. A couple of the panelists said that they struggle with male colleagues – especially older males – trying to “father” them, rather than respecting them as equal colleagues.

In other words, for a young female engineer whose job it is to do dirty, physical work in the field, male colleagues go out of their way to treat them like daughters, offering uninvited assistance (“Let me do that for you”). Often, the women are further infantilized when male colleagues address them as “Honey,” “Sweetheart,” and the like. The struggle is to overcome this by exuding confidence and being assertive about completing assigned tasks.

For a young female engineer whose job it is to do dirty, physical work in the field, male colleagues go out of their way to treat them like daughters. Women are further infantalized when male colleagues address them as "honey" and "sweetheart"
For a young female engineer whose job it is to do dirty, physical work in the field, male colleagues go out of their way to treat them like daughters. Women are further infantalized when male colleagues address them as “honey” and “sweetheart.”

Similarly, for Southern women, there is a huge pressure to marry young and quickly have children. Some of the panelists had been asked at their job how they would (or do) juggle career and family. As one panelist noted: “Would a male engineer ever be asked that question?”

One engineering panelist told an astonishing story of a male colleague getting into an argument with their mutual supervisor, and the supervisor then banning the female employee from field work on the grounds that the male colleague had been hitting on her – not to mention that the colleague had never even been so forward with her. This is a true story: the woman was punished because of the male colleague’s imaginary sexual advances toward her. Thankfully, the issue was resolved by a higher-ranking supervisor.

Another panelist noted that at a previous job at a different petroleum company, her building had two restrooms for men and none for women! Yet another reminder of how STEM communities have changed over the last few decades.

The academic panelist offered advice on how to avoid becoming the token female faculty member in a department. She said we must learn to say no to some service requests that would not help progress our careers. With so many requests, it is easy to become overloaded to the extent that our teaching and research responsibilities are neglected, so we have to learn how to politely but firmly decline certain requests.

Personal Perspective

Phylogeography of the Southern Leopard Frog (Rana sphenocephala). Photo: Cathy Newman (Copyright)
Cathy’s research presentation on Phylogeography of the Southern Leopard Frog (Rana sphenocephala). Photo: Cathy Newman (Copyright)

I came away from this panel discussion with a better appreciation of the common challenges we all face as women in STEM fields, regardless of specific discipline (science, engineering, etc.) or type of career path (academia, industry). It also has made me think more about how culture shapes attitudes about gender and how gender bias might (or might not) vary across geographic regions. I wonder if these Southern culture specific attitudes might be more prevalent in an industry setting than in academia, since faculty are generally drawn from a much wider geographic pool, whereas industry jobs are often more local.

I also sometimes wonder, as a Southern woman from Alabama, if non-Southern academics perceive me in a less positive light because of certain behaviors, actions, words, or accent that I myself would not notice. I have been told more than once to be careful how I phrase things and address people, and I often find myself unintentionally downplaying my accent at national conferences. It is hard to know what I am imagining versus what reality is like, so it was informative and refreshing to hear the experiences of these other women who work in STEM fields in the South.

I find that hearing other women’s experiences and advice and reading literature on women in STEM helps me build self-confidence as a female scientist. But I’m also aware that not everyone feels this way. I once attended a talk by a female scientist and mentor that presented a lot of data on gender bias in science, and one audience member asked her why we should bother staying in the field if the outlook is so bleak. I think that’s the wrong way of looking at the issue, though.

Hearing other women's experiences and advice and reading literature on women in STEM helps me build self-confidence as a female scientist. - Cathy Newman, PhD student in evolutionary biology
Building self-confidence as a woman scientist. – Cathy Newman, PhD student in evolutionary biology

Yes, gender bias still exists, but the field has progressed very far even over the last decade, and I see signs of hope: major research institutions hiring young female faculty for tenure-track STEM jobs, journal editorial boards discussing double-blind peer review, childcare at scientific conferences, etc. I acknowledge, though, that I have been lucky to be part of academic communities that strongly support women in science, including a former advisor, current advisor, dissertation committee, graduate student and postdoc colleagues, and other faculty in the department – male and female – who are sensitive to the issues we face and talk about them openly. So perhaps my view is a bit rosier than others’.

But while these challenges won’t deter me from a career in science, there are specific areas within my discipline that experience and insider information has made me reconsider. I study salamander systematics and evolutionary history in a museum setting. Collection based museums, and herpetology in particular, still tend to be very male and quite old-school – more so even than non-museum evolutionary biology departments.

I am lucky to currently be in a very supportive environment, but on a broader scale, being part of the global museum community as a woman is tough. There are many reasons why I have decided that museum work is not the career path I want to pursue, but one of those reasons is definitely the more intense challenges I would face as a woman in an environment dominated by older (in age and attitude) males.

Information I have gleaned from other women in the field has played a large part in my decision and I cannot imagine entering a job (or graduate school or postdoc) blindly, unprepared for any of the unique challenges I would face. Certainly, knowledge of gender bias in STEM will turn off some quality women from STEM entirely, and I think we do need to address this problem. But I also think the benefits of being prepared emotionally and mentally to successfully face the challenges of male-dominated STEM careers far outweigh any of the negative side effects.

Advice for Women Students in STEM: Find mentors you can trust and confide in; Learn to say no to service requests that don't progress your career; Understand and help address the struggles of women of colour; Keep up outside interests that can build your sense of power. -
Advice for Women Students in STEM. LSU Women in STEM panel, via Cathy Newman, student in evolutionary biology

Photo Credits

All original photos copyright of Cathy Newman (courtesy of the author). Adapted by STEM Women.

About the Author:

Catherine NewmanCathy Newman is a PhD student in evolutionary biology at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science. Her research focuses on the phylogeography and evolutionary history of the southern red-back salamander and, more broadly, the effects of climate and landscape on geographic distributions of amphibians in the southeastern United States. Find her on Twitter or on her website.

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