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OPINION: How to be a woman and a scientist in 2017

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Dr. Kim Thomspon (left) Photo from Ohio University. Photo (right) via Wikimedia Commons.

Opinion writer Haley Appelmann talks with Ohio U professor Dr. Kim Thompson to discuss women’s ever-growing role in the science field. 

There’s no doubt that identifying as a woman and a scientist is more common than it was when today’s professors and industry workers first chose their paths. However, there is by no means equity in the representation of women in STEM. There is not even equity in acknowledgment for those women who are in STEM. If we want to be able to one day say that women scientists are more common than right now, in 2017, we cannot say the work is finished.

Who better to guide college women on changing the culture in STEM than the very women who helped to change it themselves?

One such woman is Dr. Janet Duerr, an Associate Professor of biological sciences at Ohio University who spent her undergraduate years at a school in California. She had hardly arrived as a freshman before fellow classmates were coming up to her and telling her women should not even be allowed at the university because “having them on campus distracted the men.” This was the discrimination she faced, solely because she was a woman in college. Imagine the challenges that came as one of few female students in every STEM lecture hall and lab.

Duerr serves as the adviser for many students studying neuroscience and the biological sciences. When she is not teaching biology, she is educating her students on the very real bias against women in STEM exposed by ever-recent studies. Duerr was also one of many women scientists on a panel for the Women in Science Class offered at Ohio U and taught by Dr. Kim Thompson.

Thompson is an active member of the American Association for University Women (AAUW) student chapter and lecturer of environmental and plant biology at Ohio U. Like Duerr, she has seen improvements for women in STEM since she started her academic career but she also sees the need for continued growth.

“I see more women in leadership roles now although we are still not represented equitably. Implicit bias results in women being judged more harshly even by people with good intentions. Research shows that becoming aware of our biases and determining that we want to overcome them helps us achieve a more balanced workforce,” Thompson said.

How do we achieve this more balanced workforce? Thompson believes two main actions can be taken.

First she says it is important to find mentors who will support a woman’s full development as scientists. By working in a lab or doing an internship, women will meet scientists in their field and get a feel for the work. Some opportunities for mentorship at Ohio U include the AAUW student chapter, Society of Women Engineers, Women in Information and Telecommunication Systems and the Women’s Center.

You can even take a gender studies course, such as the Women in Science course taught by Thompson.

“It is important not only to have those support groups but stay positive and take initiative to broaden your experiences,” Thompson said.

“Our faculty really do want everyone to be successful so, if you ask for opportunities, you are more likely to get them.”

Reaching out to college women in STEM is crucial as this is the time where today’s scientists are training to be the scientists of tomorrow. Without the proper mentorship and opportunities, we will lose countless doctors, researchers, and policy-makers. However, this should not be where the mentorship starts.

Thompson recognizes the importance of getting children interested in science as an outreach coordinator of the Environmental and Plant Biology Department and as chair of the recruitment committee for an annual Tech Savvy event for girls in grades 6-9 from southeast Ohio.

“Middle school is an important time to recognize that working in a science career is a realistic and desirable option for them,” Thompson said.

For women in STEM and everyone else facing challenges in their studies, Thompson gives reassuring last advice.

“Recognize that you will face challenges in your studies as everyone does and appreciate your ability to overcome what seem to be barriers on your way to success. It will be worthwhile,” Thompson said.

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