Women in STEM: Interview with Professor Lesley Yellowlees, first female president of Royal Society of ChemistryPosted: May 7, 2012
Last year, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) elected their first female president in 170 years. Professor Lesley Yellowlees is presently Vice Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and will begin her two-year presidency at RSC this summer.
Prof Yellowlees intends to help promote science, specifically chemistry, when she steps into her role as president. She thinks that science and engineering is currently the way forward for the UK to emerge from the economic crisis, so she hopes to take advantage of her capacity to do something about it. However, as the first female president, Prof Yellowlees aspires to use that position to contribute to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) community.
“As I am going to be the first woman president of the RSC in 170 years, it would be a wasted opportunity if I didn’t use that to help promote women in chemistry.”
So what does Prof Yellowlees plan to do? She told me that the Royal Society of Edinburgh has just released a report called ‘Tapping all our Talents. Women in STEM: a Strategy for Scotland’, and they have already asked Prof Yellowlees to work with them on the report.
“One of the things [suggested in the report] is that they are in favour of awards such as the Athena Swan award. I certainly have been involved with the Athena Swan from early on…so I’m now encouraging all the schools in science and engineering [at Edinburgh university] to see if they can get an Athena Swan soon.”
The Athena Swan award is given to institutions of higher education that has “good practice on recruiting, retaining and promoting women in SET (science, engineering and technology)”.
During our conversation, I mentioned to Prof Yellowlees about a recent study that feminine role models may deter girls from STEM fields. She said that the bigger problem does not lie in girls not being interested enough in STEM subjects.
“Certainly in chemistry, if you look to see the proportion we take, ‘A’ levels in England or the Higher in Scotland, and then go on to university, the numbers are around 50/50. So it’s not at that point we’re losing [female students]; there’s a good uptake of them at the later years at school and certainly onto university.”
Women are leaving STEM fields due to various issues, and Prof Yellowlees thinks that this situation, known as the leaky pipeline, is a much greater obstacle.
“If you go on to see how many — for example, at university — professors are women, in chemistry it falls all the way down to 6%. So you’re going from 50%, when they’re roughly aged 20, all the way down to 6%, 20 years later. I mean, that’s appalling.”
However, Prof Yellowlees thinks that things for women in STEM have definitely improved when compared to how it was in the past.
“When I started off, I was the only woman…and I can remember somebody saying to me that I was a more endangered species than a giant panda and they should put me into a breeding programme!”
But now, there are three women professors in her chemistry department, and that is a small but good improvement from before. As the conversation moved on, I asked Prof Yellowlees what she thinks about peer mentoring.
“I agree with that. I think it’s always great to have somebody who you feel is battling for you, who’s there to help you as much as possible, and to give you particular advice such as circumstances you find yourself in. So…I’m all for mentoring.”
Apart from being a successful woman in STEM, Prof Yellowlees is also a wife, a mother, a daughter, and a friend — just like everyone else. She told me that it is difficult to try to keep a balance between work and personal life.
“I don’t think it’s easy. But I have a very strong family around me that help me. So that’s been terrific support. My husband is fantastic support, so it’s great. He’s not an academic and he’s not a scientist, and I think that’s probably helped the relationship no end. I have two great children. They were very supportive of what I was trying to do, and my daughter in fact went to study chemistry at Durham university, so I can’t have been a bad influence or role model.”
Since Prof Yellowlees had some influence in her daughter taking the same route she did, I wondered if there was anyone in particular that she looked up to when she was a girl.
“At this point in time I would dearly love to rattle off a whole lot of female chemists, but at the time there were none. I’ve had a lot of role models in other aspects of my life, but I’ve just always, I think, depending on what I was doing. I’ve had mentors of various walks of life, and I’ve just taken inspiration as and when I’ve needed it.”
And with that, our conversation came to an end. Prof Yellowlees is an optimistic, confident woman who will no doubt continue to inspire and help other aspiring women scientists and academics realise their potential.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects have long been stereotyped as “masculine” topics. This perception is one of the reasons why girls tend to be less interested in STEM, and is a challenge that the STEM community has been trying to overcome.
It seems that a viable strategy to eliminate the perception would be to portray STEM subjects and women in STEM as feminine, but psychology researchers at University of Michigan (UM) discovered that this plan may actually put girls off the subjects instead.
“What we found was that the unique combination of seeming feminine and being good at math and science made girls feel worse about their own math skills,” said Diana Betz, who is a doctoral student in psychology at UM and lead author of the study. “Further, girls who did not report liking math or science before the study began felt even less likely to want to pursue math in the future when they read about feminine math and science role models.”
Betz and her colleague, Denise Sekaquaptewa, wanted to know why there are so few women in STEM compared to men, and seeked to find “ways to help women feel free to explore those fields”. They noticed that people have been trying to promote STEM fields as feminine using methods such as creating a computer engineer Barbie. Even actress and mathematician Danica McKellar, who is the embodiment of a feminine STEM role model, contributed by publishing three books that suggest that girls can be good at math and look good at the same time: Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail; Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss; and Hot X: Algebra Exposed!.
“We wondered how effective those kinds of strategies were,” said Betz. “So we set out to test the idea: does making math and science seem feminine make girls more interested in them?”
Four magazines containing biographies of the same three college women in STEM were distributed by middle school teachers to their 6th and 7th grade female students. Each magazine presented the women differently. For example, one would have the women dress in neutral-coloured clothing and have normal hobbies such as reading; another would have the women decked out in pink, and their hobbies would include girly pastimes.
After the girls had looked through the magazines, they were given questionnaires that asked how confident they thought they were at maths, and whether they would choose to take maths modules in high school and college.
Betz and Sekaquaptewa also did a follow-up study, which revealed that it was the girls who already dislike STEM subjects who think that women are unlikely to be feminine and excel in STEM as well. Betz thinks this shows that the “masculine” stereotype still has a strong hold on how girls perceive STEM fields, and feminising these disciplines may not be a feasible solution after all.
“As long as that stereotype remains, it may be the case that just seeing everyday women succeeding in unexpected fields like science and engineering may be more beneficial than seeing extra-feminine women in STEM, at least to girls at this age.”
Women in STEM have managed to gain some progress in terms of slowly chipping away at the glass ceiling. However, the advancements have not made huge changes, and women are still facing numerous challenges in the STEM fields.
In fact, the number of women dropping out of science is increasing. Not only that, there are lesser women going into computer science and engineering disciplines. The amount of women entering those disciplines was increasing up until the late 90s and early 2000, but that number has been dipping in the last ten years.
Professor Joanne Smieja teaches chemistry at Gonzaga University in Washington. She has been teaching at Gonzaga for about 25 years, and has been a chemist for nearly 30 years. Prof Smieja recently obtained funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct a nationwide project that involves creating peer-mentoring alliances within the women in STEM community in the United States.
I spoke with her about challenges she faced, and her opinions on current issues concerning women in STEM.
Have you encountered any unpleasant challenges in your career?
Probably. I’ve been a professional chemist going on 30 years. I know that there have been times, like early in my career, when I was the only woman in my department. So if I got a grant funded or if I got a paper accepted, inevitably, I would hear from one of my colleagues say, well, “You were able to do that because you’re a woman, and they have to meet some kind of quota. And that’s why you were able to get that funding,” which is, all the data shows is not true. But I’ve run into plenty of that kind of behaviour where my accomplishments were not seen as a result of my efforts, but because I fit into a category, and that really bothered me.
What can be done to tackle the problem of biases?
There’s lots that can be done. For example, the funding agencies need to just do blind reviews. I mean, they need to stop letting the names go out. Similarly, when papers get reviewed, we have peer review publications. So it probably would be best for the journals, before they send it out to their reviewers, that they get rid of any kind of identifying information, so that there isn’t this bias that because this is a woman so this work is probably not as serious as other work. So there’s that. I [also] think there’s a lot of education that needs to happen.
Why do you think some women leave STEM careers just a few years after they started?
During my time, even at Gonzaga, it hasn’t happened in the chemistry department, but it definitely happened in engineering and computer science. We’ve been able to successfully recruit some really talented women. But they only stay for four or five years, and then they leave on their own accord. I really think it has to do with that isolation factor, that a woman who’s alone in her department and trying to figure out how to meet the criteria we have during the probationary period…and at the same time think about starting a family. There’s just so many stressors, and if there’s no other woman to talk to about how do you go about doing that, I think it makes it even more stressful than it would be for anybody else.
Does having a role model help motivate women in STEM?
That’s what all the data is showing. And even without looking at the data, that’s been my experience. I often have these students contact me years after they’ve graduated…they wanted to share with me how my relationship with them affected their lives’ paths.
Typically here at Gonzaga, I teach a sophomore-level class that everybody has to take. But every seven years I go on a sabbatical, and so somebody else teaches that class. This year, the students that are graduating from Gonzaga are students that didn’t have me because I was on sabbatical two years ago. Even women from that graduating class, they’ve sought me out to do research with me, or do a direct reading with me, or be my teaching assistant. They had a male professor cover my classes when I was on sabbatical, and they want an opportunity to interact with me.
What do you think the future holds for women in STEM?
Right now, for example, in computer science, the number of women going into computer science is decreasing. But I’m a strong believer in education. So I just feel that if we can educate more people in terms of implicit bias or explicit bias, then we will eventually, with time, be able to improve the environment; both the learning and the teaching environments for women. So I’m hopeful…but I’m also realistic that there are deep-seeded problems. Even if right now we start making the change, it will be years before we actually can see a big change.
What advice would you give to aspiring young STEM women?
Believe in yourself. That’s what I think is critical, is that women are capable. Women can contribute in a huge way to any of the STEM disciplines. So first of all, I would encourage young women to be confident that they can do it, that they do have the ability to be major contributors. And then, to avoid people who aren’t supportive, and to seek out people — both male and female — who do support their dreams.
Women are still poorly represented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, despite efforts made over the years in overcoming barriers. A recent report by Girl Scouts of the USA found that although over 70% of girls are interested in STEM subjects at school, many of them do not think that a STEM career is a viable choice.
In order to improve attitudes of girls toward STEM subjects, several single-gender out-of-school time (OST) programmes have been established in the United States. The Harvard Family Research Project has found that these programmes have “increased confidence [of girls] in their math skills, improved attitudes toward and engagement in math, and increased plans to attend or enroll in college”.
Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy
The Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy (CGLA) in Tennessee is a school that focuses on teaching STEM subjects to their students. The school first opened its doors in July 2009, and was inspired by the success of OST programmes.
However, what sets CGLA apart from other schools is that majority of its students come from minority ethnic backgrounds. Carolyn Towns, interim director of CGLA, said that the school attends to a student population that is “78% african american; 20% hispanic”. In addition to that, the school does not require any enrollment qualification.
“During the first two years…the state of Tennessee only allowed charter schools to enroll students who were not proficient on state exams or who were in failing schools,” Ms Towns explained. “Since this past fall, we have been able to recruit any girl who is in our county…and obviously pull from a largely African-American, Hispanic population with high poverty levels.”
Minority women in STEM
It appears that CGLA’s efforts in trying to get minority girls engaged in STEM subjects is on the right track. Recently, the American Chemical Society (ACS) held a symposium to commemorate the anniversary of the first recorded meeting of minority women held in 1975 that resulted in the report: The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.
The symposium highlighted that even though there have been progress for minority women in STEM, some impediments still remain. Yolanda S. George, who is the deputy director for American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), presented findings from a National Science Foundation (NSF) study that showed that “the percentage of women of color holding doctorates in science and engineering remains small”.
CGLA’s efforts to support minority girls
So what is CGLA doing to help these minority girls achieve their goals?
The school requires its students to take five 90-minutes long core subjects per day. For example, students will take two science classes a year, two maths classes a year, and so on.
Apart from classes, CGLA organises activities to further engage their students in the subjects.
“All of our field trips are STEM related. We encourage girls to get involved in contests, activities beyond the school day that are STEM related,” said CGLA’s interm director Carolyn Towns. Some of the field trips include visits to Alabama’s air and space museum, local hospitals, and Tennessee aquarium.
But CGLA is doing more than providing girls with a good education.
“We hope to…help [our students] find financial aid to go on to the next level of education, [and also] hope to empower girls to see the possibilities of good, stable lives due to their educational achievements,” said Ms Towns.
CGLA will have their first graduating class next year. Although the school did not conduct any formal survey with its students about their future, Ms Towns revealed that informal conversations with the girls suggest that majority of them are keen to enter health fields.
A nationwide project will kick off this year to create a network of alliance for women academics working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
The project, led by Professor Joanne Smieja of Gonzaga University, received a grant of US$598,611 from the National Science Foundation to run this programme for four years. There is a total of 70 women STEM professors from 25 institutions across the United States (US) who have signed up to participate.
Few women faculty in STEM departments
According to Prof Smieja, undergraduate institutions in the US have relatively small STEM departments where the total number of staff is between seven and 12. Often, within those departments, only one or two of them will be women, and being a minority can be daunting.
“This leads to special challenges, because a woman in that situation doesn’t have others to turn to or going through the same kind of experiences,” said Prof Smieja.
The inspiration behind the project
In 2010, Prof Smieja became acquainted with someone who had been part of an earlier advanced grant by NSF that was “specifically designed to help women in academic situations in STEM fields advance their careers”. Her acquaintance gained so much from the grant, and told Prof Smieja that the involvement was “transformational”, and that it “positively affected her outlook in her job, her productivity in terms of her research, and her career”.
Spurred on by this acquaintance’s experience, Prof Smieja came up with her own similar project.
“What I wanted to do was to build on this previous grant,” said Prof Smieja. “But I wanted to be slightly different in that with this previous grant, there were four alliances, three of which were composed of senior women in chemistry, and one was senior woman in physics.”
However, in her project, there will be 14 alliances, where every group of three will contain women from the same disciplines. For example, the chemistry group will be made up of three senior women, three mid-career women, and three women in their early career. Other disciplines include mathematics, physics, computer science, and biology.
How does it work? Women will primarily be peer-mentoring other women in their own alliance internet communication tools such as Skype. But the grant will bring all the alliances together three times during the four years in a nationwide meeting.
“The first meeting will be held in Kansas City in conjunction with a national organisation called Project Kaleidoscope,” Prof Smieja enthused. “Participants across alliances will meet and talk about major issues: for example, the women in chemistry will discuss ways of overcoming obstacles.”
Prof Smieja refers to this as vertical mentoring. Another type of mentoring, horizontal mentoring, involves communication between women in all disciplines. So all of the senior women from all the different disciplines will come together and discuss issues such as why there are more women in biology, and why that particular discipline has been successful in increasing their numbers.
One of the challenges Prof Smieja thinks she will face is trying to convince the women that this project is different from other research that have been done. “[These women] are so used to having to do so much to prove themselves. They just need to be themselves [for this project], and commit to having a relationship with others.”
This project is expected to help women in STEM across all career stages and disciplines gain advancement in their careers through peer-mentoring. Prof Smieja hopes that by creating alliances, women will feel less alone.
“I hope that this type of networking…primarily peer-mentoring, will be one of the things that we can do to make the environment less chilly, and make it empower women more to stay in academics and advance their careers.”
To hear more from Prof Smieja, watch the video below:
“When I was married, one pressure that I faced was the fact that as a new tenure-track faculty member, I often needed to work late,” begins Catrina Hamilton-Darger, assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dickinson College in the US. “Most of that was because I was teaching and advising during the day, so the only time I could really prepare for my classes was outside of my time at school.
“This, of course, interfered greatly with my time with my husband,” she says. “He was not in academia, and therefore didn’t have a complete understanding of what all my job entailed.”
Catrina’s experience has been an ordeal faced by many women pursuing a career in science. Many of these women are often diverted or “leak” from the pipeline of science because of marriage and motherhood.
According to a 2010 study carried out by researchers of University of California, Berkeley, women in the sciences who are married with children are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure track position after receiving a Ph.D. than married men with children – and 27 percent less likely than their male counterparts to achieve tenure upon entering a tenure-track job.
The study also found that single women without young children are slightly more successful than married women with children in achieving tenure.
Another science survey carried out by Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) revealed that 61 percent of female respondents were struggling to balance their personal lives and their career.
The roles of women in the family also makes them caregivers and homemakers, making it hard for them to cope with their academic career pressure. At times that leaves them having to choose between career and family. “I opted to not apply for observing time in Chile (I’m an astronomer) because I wasn’t sure that I would be able to find a way to pump my breastmilk while I was traveling,” Catrina says.
“I actually gave up one whole year of observing time to make sure that I was able to nourish my daughter in the best way,” she adds.
To seal the leak and help women have a balance between work and family can be done. Universities need to put in place family responsive policies, benefits and resources. Various child care support should also be in place to help out.
“Before you choose a graduate school, postdoc or faculty position, find out what the policies and practices are at that institution around these family-formation issues,” said Jennifer Sheridan, the executive and research director of Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI).
Governments can also help, by introducing policies that help women achieve equal access to education at all levels.
There is a federal government law in US, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.
To ensure compliance with the law institutions receiving federal funds must evaluate their policies to fight against sex discrimination.