Sunday, 11 February, is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To mark the day, we asked female scientists from around the world to reflect on their experiences and offer their advice. The responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Being a woman in physics has been challenging and lonely at times. I have had to work hard to fit in with professional networks, to get heard and recognized, to identify role models who could show me the way forward, and perhaps even to identify with the scientific community. On the flip side, by just being there and doing my work, I have been able to act as both a pioneer and a role model for others. Having to blaze your own trail is hard, but it also allows you a lot of freedom and creativity in your work. Knowing that all your efforts to open the door will one day also benefit others makes your personal achievements all the more satisfying. I believe that my experience has also made me more supportive; conscious of potential biases, including my own; and open to different expressions of scientific work and excellence, which now helps me in recruiting people for my lab.
My advice to early-career women scientists is to believe in yourself and believe that what you do matters for science and for society. Strive to create the networks and find the peer support and mentoring that you need. Be open and outspoken about the challenges that you face to help others find better ways to support you. But you also need to be realistic, as not everyone will be able to see things from a new perspective or change their ways. Ultimately, this is your life, and you have to decide what things are worth fighting for and what others are not worth the time or energy.
- Nønne Prisle, associate professor in atmospheric science at the University of Oulu in Finland
Women advocating for women is so essential in all disciplines, but especially those that remain male-dominated. As a graduate student, I feel fortunate to be surrounded by female scientists who are incredible sources of support and inspiration. I am forever grateful to those who came before me, as it was their commitment to improving the system that has led to so many more opportunities for women in science today. With that said, we still have a way to go. So, the next time your labmate tells you she’s nervous about giving a talk at a conference because she’ll be one of the only women speaking or that she’s applying for a position in a department consisting entirely of men, remind her that in pushing forward she’s creating positive change for the women who will come after her.
- Samantha Jones, doctoral candidate in biomedical sciences at the University of California, San Diego
Young women often second-guess themselves, particularly when faced with conflicting advice from respected mentors. It’s important to keep in mind that what is best for your mentors is not always best for you. Trust your gut. It’s easy to doubt your intuition if you continually run into obstacles, and obstacles might pop up more for women than for men. But willingly taking a step back and being introspective about what you want and need—asking yourself, “What is best for me?”—is critical. If you train yourself to do this, you can become more confident in the path you are taking, in facing the obstacles you will very likely have to face as a minority in science and in advocating for yourself.
- Elizabeth Nance, assistant professor in chemical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle
My experience as a woman in science has been wonderful these past few years, as the more I have developed my career, the more I have become a role model for students in my country. Today, my research group equally attracts male and female researchers. In class, I love telling my students, "If I have done it, you can do it too" and seeing their eyes light up. They go from questioning whether they can be successful to asking questions about how they can be successful. Especially for women, who even at a young age can internalize impostor syndrome, this is a big step forward. I also love challenging stereotypes whenever I stumble upon them. When asked whether I am a postdoc or a Ph.D. student, which often happens, I really enjoy asking people why they assume that young women cannot be full professors and seeing them panic as they try to cover up their prejudices.
- Bilge Demirkoz, professor in high energy physics at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey
As a teenage girl growing up in 1980s Britain, my parents were once told by a probably well-intended teacher that I was “very good at physics for a girl.” I believe that gender stereotypes in science are a little less rife today than they were back then. Among my immediate peers, at least, I am judged by my ability to do the job and not my gender. Having said that, one cannot afford to become complacent, as unconscious biases and antiquated comments sometimes crop up when you least expect them—like the day when a student referred to a male colleague standing next to me as a “doctor,” then subsequently called me “love.”
There is no easy fix. On one side, you should not let any of the gender stereotypes which are thrown at you affect you. But neither should you just ignore biased or inappropriate comments. My advice is to stand up for yourself and bring biases and misconceptions into the open in order to debunk them, even if this feels uncomfortable. Often, gender bias results from pervasive cultural stereotypes rather than a conscious desire to discriminate. Women academics, especially once well established, have a responsibility to address stereotypes to not only ensure gender equality but also to enhance the employability and career progression of our female graduates.
- Sarah Jones, reader in pharmacology at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom
As a woman, it is often really hard for me to feel like I matter in science. Conferences are often full of mostly white men, and I can go to entire sessions where no women are on a panel. I’ve been sexually harassed at professional conferences and by colleagues. It’s really easy to think that you should leave your field—why should I put up with this constant sexism? I’ve tried to combat this by going to workshops on how to get over impostor syndrome. (The fact that these workshops exist at all, and that they are filled to capacity, is a testament to how pervasive this feeling is.) There will likely come a time when, as a woman graduate student, you will need to stand up for yourself and your friends. Be prepared for it and know how to shut down sexism and racism and any other discrimination. You don’t have to wait for it to happen to you before you learn how to respond.
- Alyssa Frederick, doctoral candidate in physiology at the University of California, Irvine
As a woman in computer science, I have had to get used to being in a minority, especially at the beginning of my career. One challenge that I occasionally encountered was getting people to take what I said seriously. I had the frustrating experience that women commonly have of saying something in a meeting which goes completely unnoticed, until a man repeats it 5 minutes later and people respond with, “What a good point he made.” As I progressed in my career, this seemed to happen less. Sometimes, though, I found that being a minority could also work for me, as I could offer different views and perspectives on problems and make useful contributions. Today, my interdisciplinary research group has more women than men, and I believe that it is really important to include a diversity of visions about the kind of future we would like science and technology to create for us.
- Marina Jirotka, professor of human-centered computing at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom
I was very lucky to have parents who were supportive of my scientific and mathematical abilities and my desire to study planetary science from a young age. They fought for me to be in advanced math classes in primary school, took me to a space shuttle launch, and drove me to summer internships well out of the way from their daily routes. I felt empowered. I didn't think much of being a girl in STEM. I wasn’t different or unusual; I was who I was. Until I got to college, that is. As an undergraduate, I became acutely aware that I was the only female in my male-dominated physics and astronomy courses, taught exclusively by male professors. In graduate school, I frequently questioned my own abilities and progress. Without being conscious of it, I struggled with impostor syndrome, unaware until many years later that it was a real concept experienced by so many underrepresented populations in STEM.
Now, as an established research scientist, I make sure that female students can recognize impostor syndrome and stereotype threats, and I give them encouragement to prevail. I am honest with women colleagues about my own fears and failures, and I share my triumphs. I have an open-door policy for students who may need a neutral ear. I advocate for diversity within my department and projects that I work on. Finally, and most importantly, I strive to live a life with a fair and realistic balance between career and family so that younger generations of women can see me as a successful, happy role model.
- Lori Feaga, associate research scientist in astronomy at the University of Maryland in College Park
Being a woman scientist in my country is very challenging. Some people see me as a threat and do not understand why I am not in the kitchen. When I am out in the field collecting data, some people look at me strangely and wonder why a woman is in a forest with a team of men. But I love what I do, and all of these challenges encourage me to learn and do more as a woman scientist.
- Adwoba Kua-Manza Edjah, research scientist at Ghana Atomic Energy Commission and doctoral candidate in hydrogeology at the University of Ghana in Legon
At first it was exciting to be the only woman in an engineering class: Simply by existing, I was making a difference. I even found it a little funny: What are the odds that I’m the only woman in a 15-person undergraduate class at a college with 40,000 students? The funny part got old fast: the unwanted romantic advances, the assumed incompetence, the surprise at my chosen career path, the implications of not fitting in, and the implications that being a woman gave me an advantage and I hadn’t actually earned my successes. By the time I got to an internship after my junior year, I wasn’t surprised that the 31 other interns were men, and I wasn’t surprised at what I had to put up with to be “friends” with them. I had figured out that being a “buzzkill” could be both socially and professionally detrimental, so I was used to tolerating some inappropriate conduct. Looking back, I tolerated more than I had to that summer. I had never been outnumbered that severely, and honestly, it was intimidating. I also felt pressure to be happy. I wasn’t about to change my major 3 years in, and that was my only example of what an engineering job was like, so I convinced myself that the jokes were funny.
I still find it exciting to be one of the few women in a male-dominated field—I’m still making a difference just by being here—but I’ve since learned that there is a wide variety of professional cultures, and I don’t have to settle for one that is unwelcoming and, frankly, unsafe. I now work in a department where diversity-related issues are acknowledged and discussed openly and frequently. I have many male colleagues who I consider actual friends, who have never asked me out or made a joke at my expense. I no longer feel like I’m seen as a woman first; I am just a researcher, a scientist, an engineer.
To young(er) women entering male-dominated STEM fields: Don’t be afraid to be the “buzzkill” and call out bad behavior. There’s more support for you than you may realize, and there are genuinely positive work environments out there. To folks who are in leadership positions: Start the conversation, create a space for everyone, and your culture can only improve.
- Monica Esopi, doctoral candidate in chemical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle
During lectures, I frequently include a slide with pictures of collaborators (all women!), which also has the photo of my nonscientist sister. I invite the audience members to guess who the “intruder” is, and I recommend that they avoid being misled by microscopes and white coats. People rarely guess correctly. This game allows me to challenge the scientist stereotype of a crazy old man and to show that science is increasingly being conducted by women of diverse ages, origins, and life stories.
- Paula de Tezanos Pinto, investigator at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council and Instituto de Botánica Darwinion in Buenos Aires
I am first and foremost a scientist, but of course I am also a woman. The biggest challenge that I faced was that of a dual-career couple with family responsibilities. I do not pretend that combining a career and family is easy, because it is not, and often compromises have to be made by both men and women. In my case, we decided that my academic husband's career should take priority. But when he moved to Cambridge, I was also able to get a good position. Then, when we had children, I worked part time, but I was still able to achieve a great deal, eventually becoming a senior faculty member leading my own research group. A few years ago, I was recognized with an Order of the British Empire award for my services to higher education and to women in science. I have no regrets about the path I took.
- Helen Mason, reader in solar physics at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom
Discrimination wins when the discriminated against get distracted by it. There were moments when I was the only woman at the table, when I was interrupted by an irrelevant comment, or when I had to listen to a sexist joke. I’m learning that in such instances the most important thing is to never lose confidence and to stay focused on what’s important: doing great science. I’ve found mentors and allies who reinforce this approach in their mentees and peers, and I do my best to convey this message to the next generation of science girls.
- Aleksandra Deczkowska, postdoctoral scholar in immunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel
I was the first woman ever to be appointed professor at the prestigious engineering school École Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, in 1992. My gender made me a pioneer within the institution, but for me, the greatest challenge was having both a family (three sons) and a time-consuming job. Fortunately, my children were in good health, I had excellent help at home with a nanny, and my husband has always been very supportive. I was also well organized and learned to juggle my day-to-day work, professional ambitions, and private life, trusting that they would all balance over time. I have been retired for 12 years now, and I believe that life as a woman scientist is more difficult nowadays than during my time. The many years of job instability that early-career researchers now typically go through and the increasing need for mobility can make private life difficult. My advice to women scientists is to be confident in your abilities, choose your partner well, and find good support in your network, which is surely larger than you think. Also, do not only look for academic jobs, as there are many exciting opportunities in the private sector as well.
- Claudine Hermann, vice president of the European Platform of Women Scientists headquartered in Brussels and president of honor of the Paris-based Femmes and Sciences Association
I have never felt discriminated against as a woman. However, I have experienced many of what gender studies professor Liisa Husu called “non-events,” such as not being seen, not being taken into account, not being recognized, and eventually not being supported. At times, I have also had to remind younger men with less experience than me that I was the principal investigator of the research grant. These are small and subtle things, almost hidden, but their accumulation over time can have a strong impact on women and discourage them from staying in academia. To counteract these forces, I make a point to acknowledge the work and achievements of other women, for example by going up to them after a roundtable or inspiring talk. To succeed, girls and young women need to have a strong belief in themselves, build a network of peers, and look up to prominent woman scientists across different disciplines.
- Núria Teixidó, research associate in marine ecology at Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples, Italy, and research visitor at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University in Pacific Grove, California
Both my parents are engineers, and as I see it, there is no distinction between men and women in research—both genders are equally driven by their passion. But while it is difficult for most young scientists to gain visibility and recognition, the situation is more complex for women, who unfortunately still face misogynist jokes and remarks about their physical appearance or behavior. To avoid such situations, some of my women colleagues try to look as nonfeminine as possible. My approach has been the opposite: I believe that gender bias must be challenged up front by bringing in more diversity and openness into academia. So, I make a point to be myself, working with people who accept me as I am. Yes, you can wear makeup and flashy dresses, have a huge collection of shoes, be fond of the television series Downton Abbey—and at the same time be an excellent scientist! Similarly, you can be an excellent scientist and a parent. As an expecting mother, I am concerned about the difficulties ahead of sharing my time between science and motherhood. But every day, I keep in mind the example of two wonderful mothers in my field who are influential scientists, and I believe that by being efficient, selective, and flexible, one can have it all.
- Sarah Antier, postdoc in astrophysics at the Laboratoire de l’Accélérateur Linéaire in Orsay, France