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Bio & Life Sciences Inclusion Leadership

Noticing More Women in STEM? Here’s One Reason Why.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Efforts to improve representation of women at all levels of science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) fields recently got a boost from a low-tech solution. Female scientists launched a public registry listing their names, positions, areas of expertise, and contact information. Now, nearly 11,000 women are included in the database. And a study of what this has meant found that thousands of women already on the registry were more likely to be contacted about public speaking opportunities, providing commentary in news articles, and sharing expertise with students.

The challenge of breaking the male dominance of STEM fields is more complex than just encouraging women to pursue careers in these areas. I know this from personal experience. During my time as editor of a news magazine for biologists, one of the toughest parts of my job was finding women scientists willing to be on the cover. When we asked male scientists to be on the cover, we’d almost always get a “yes.” But when we tried to showcase a female scientist, we were frequently turned down. Many women scientists worried that appearing on the cover of a magazine would make people take them and their research less seriously, or that they weren’t as qualified as their male counterparts to be considered an expert.

That’s just one example of why it’s so difficult to show the true diversity of people in STEM fields. While women have earned more PhDs than men for a decade, it may take years before this new generation of female biologists, chemists, physicists, and others have the opportunity to become recognized leaders in any given specialty.

Better representation of women in STEM should create an easier path for young girls to become scientists at a time when women have amassed more power and higher-ranking positions in the field.

That’s where 500 Women Scientists comes in. The grassroots organization was launched after the 2016 election to advocate for science. “It was a commitment not just to stand up for science,” says Maryam Zaringhalam, a molecular biologist and member of the organization’s international leadership team, “but also to stand up for the people who are doing science and the people who should be benefiting from science.” They used a Google form to create the “Request a Woman Scientist” registry, reasoning that at least one impediment to seeing so few women quoted in news articles or speaking on conference panels was that people don’t know where to find women with relevant expertise.

The result is a searchable database in which anyone could sign up (each self-nominated expert is vetted by volunteers at 500 Women Scientists). “It was very obvious that we needed a place where we could gather all this information together,” says Liz McCullagh, another member of the leadership team who is a neuroscientist. “It’s so encouraging to me that we’re being advocates for ourselves.” In the first year, the database was accessed more than 100,000 times by reporters, teachers, conference organizers, and scientists.

Being researchers, of course, McCullagh and her colleagues couldn’t just start this database; they had to study it and see whether it made any difference. Those results were recently reported in a scientific publication showing that the database had broad appeal: women scientists from more than 130 countries and nearly 200 different disciplines answered the call in the first year. Some science journalists have relied on the list to source their articles. In a survey of women who joined the database, 11% reported being contacted through it, mostly to participate in conferences, video chats with students, and other professional opportunities.

The concept is gaining momentum, and the team has now secured funding that will be used to rebuild the database for a better user experience, such as making it possible to save searches and create profiles. Ultimately, the vision is much bigger: better representation of women in STEM should create an easier path for young girls to follow in their wake, perhaps becoming scientists themselves at a time when women have amassed more power and higher-ranking positions in the field. “The more people that use it and are part of the database, the better it becomes,” McCullagh says. “We’re just getting started.”

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