Women in STEM: Interview with Professor Joanne Smieja

Image by Gonzaga University Magazine

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.

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