On Capitol Hill, Yale Biophysicist Addresses STEM Gender Bias and Solutions
“I’ve never discussed science with women,” a male student told biophysicist Sofia Espinoza Sanchez after she interviewed him for a position at the Research Experience for Peruvian Undergraduates program, which trains Peru’s most promising undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Her interviewee’s comment is disheartening, but it doesn’t surprise her: “Can you imagine the illusion [that women scientists don’t exist] because everything is so male-dominated, especially in Peru, in [STEM] careers?” she points out.
Espinoza Sanchez, a 2013–14 AAUW International Fellow, is used to pushing against stereotypes and assumptions about women in STEM. She says though she has been fortunate to have an inclusive experience as a doctoral candidate at the Pollard Lab at Yale University (where she returned after working in the Peru program over the summer), female colleagues outside her lab are still subject to gender stereotypes. She says that subtle, unconscious gender bias, such as portraying women in a more lighthearted manner, reinforces gender stereotypes. “The adjectives used to describe people are important. When you describe a woman as ‘easygoing’ and a man as ‘intelligent,’ it makes a difference.”
The difference means female scientists often fall prey to imposter syndrome, in which they doubt their qualifications or work longer hours than male counterparts in order to prove their abilities. Espinoza Sanchez questions the value of women making such sacrifices when studies show that the problem of women’s falloff in STEM fields lies in part with employers, who systematically underestimate women job candidates.
Espinoza Sanchez recently shared her experiences as a woman working in STEM on a panel for STEM Makes Scents: The Women behind the Science of Fragrance, an event held at the U.S. Capitol by AAUW and the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) North America in cooperation with Rep. Elizabeth H. Esty (D-CT) and Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN). According to IFRA North America board member and panelist Joy Atkinson, connecting science with real-word applications is a key way to attract girls. Hands-on experiments that teach girls how to create fragrances, from household air fresheners to Rihanna’s new RiRi scent, are fun and innovative ways to get girls excited about chemical engineering.
Along with Rep. Esty, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), Espinoza Sanchez discussed how to encourage young girls to pursue STEM majors and careers. She says the best way to ensure that women pursue and retain positions in STEM fields is for them to have mentors and become part of a community of female scholars. According to research highlighted in AAUW’s Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing, female role models are invaluable in strengthening young women’s math attitudes and self-concepts and increasing girls’ and women’s abilities to truly consider engineering and computing fields as viable career options. In that vein, L’Oreal USA’s For Women in Science Fellowship provides funding for women postdoctoral scientists who are committed to mentoring young women in STEM. Many of AAUW’s fellows in STEM fields, including NASA astrophysicist Kimberly Ennico Smith, computer scientist Kate Lockwood, and ECO Girls founder Tiya Miles, are dedicated to fostering the next generation of women scientists.
It’s critical for employers, faculty, and corporations alike to take an active role in recruiting and retaining women STEM professionals. Espinoza Sanchez explains that the Peruvian undergraduate program she works on is led by equal numbers of female and male scientists and always has a woman present during the interview process. The initiative also aims to accept equal numbers of female and male scholars in all subject areas. She will lead the program’s first group of physics scholars this year.
Espinoza Sanchez’s advice for young women pursuing STEM careers? Be fearless. “Don’t be afraid of trying things; it’s okay if sometimes you fail. That’s going to happen, but that does not mean you are not capable.”
This post was written by AAUW Social Media and Media Relations Intern Seaira Christian-Daniels.
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