This month, the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine included two women. It's a sign of growing success for female scientists. But the National Science Foundation reports that women still make up only 33 percent of all people in science.
That's especially true in the hard disciplines, such as the study of radioactive elements. Anna King reports from an area of the Northwest with a high concentration of top-level scientists near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
|Dr. Jen Fisher holds up her recent poster on the sorption of uranium. She's in her early 30s and says it's hard to date as a Ph.D. and woman of science. Across the Northwest and the United States, women only make up 33 percent of all people working in science. The federal government and some nonprofits are trying to change that.|
We're at the Migration conference in Kennewick, Washington. It's a meeting of the world's experts on radioactive elements. Deb Stoliker is giving a presentation.
Deb Stoliker: “You will notice therewas some variability in the uranium concentration at those later times so weactually took an average of the last three data points.”
Most everyone in the audience of 250 is a Ph.D. And most of them are men.
Stoliker clearly won respect from her peers. But many women here say they still have to work extremely hard to get ahead in a mostly male world.
Women like Stoliker are rare. Take the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. Only 23 percent of the scientists there are women, and a fraction of them study radioactive elements.
Kris De Welde: “Women bring diverse and unique experiences to the workplace, and I think we neglect this at our peril.”
That's Kris De Welde. She studies the reasons behind the low numbers of women in science at Florida Gulf Coast University.
De Welde says science, math and engineering are increasingly the basis on which our global society makes decisions. And not enough women are at the table.
De Welde says women in science face many obstacles, from the time they are young girls to when they are trying to make a name for themselves.
She interviewed dozens of women near the end of their doctoral work. What they told her is that their tenure clocks were interfering with their biological clocks.
Kris De Welde: “Those are the years when they really have to prove themselves. They really have to work those long hours. They have to have a lot of face time in their labs, and be publishing papers. But those are also the years, just given the biological clock, where they are thinking about having children.”
Since there aren't a lot of women in science and many aren't in the top positions, De Welde says there aren't good support systems for them in the workplace.
Like affordable daycare or clear paths back to the lab after staying at home for a few years.
Even for women who don't want children, life in the sciences isn't easy. De Welde says smart scientific women can be seen as undesirable to date.
Take Dr. Jen Fisher. She's got wild red hair. Stands at a slim 5-9. And she's wicked smart. She easily chats with other scientists about her research.
Fisher studies how radioactive particles glom onto bacteria and how they move through the environment. But she says it can be really hard to find guys who aren't intimidated by her brain.
Jen Fisher: “Usually if there is someone that I might want to have a conversation with and they ask what I do, I say, ‘I'm a scientist.' And if that's interesting to them I will tell them a little more about what I do. If it's someone that I really don't feel like wasting my time on I will say something like, ‘I'm a microbial ecologist.' And if it's someone that is very drunk or very annoying or abhorrent in some way I'll say, 'I'm a radionuclide microbiologist. I work on sorption and transport.' And then they will usually go away after that.”
Fisher says beyond dating, women in science sometimes aren't treated the same in the workplace. They are not even allowed to work on nuclear submarines. And even in the lab, Fisher says roles can sometimes fall into gender stereotypes.
Jen Fisher: “... and the advisor says hey male graduate student why don't you work on fixing the instrument, hey female graduate student why don't you work on cleaning up the lab or ordering supplies.”
Fisher says as a young woman scientist she has to reach back for some women role models. Take Marie Curie, who successfully isolated radium for studies in the early 1900s.
But today there are a growing number of female scientists winning respect.
Annie Kersting is well known for her seminal paper in Nature showing that radioactive elements, like plutonium, can stick onto small particles in water and move around in the environment.
She says her field faces not just a shortage of women, but of men too.
Annie Kersting: “The country is not producing enough radio chemists. And they're trying to rectify that so the Department of Energy has invested in certain universities to try to build aprogram. But it takes a while.”
There are nonprofits working to recruit women into sciences too.
MESA is a nonprofit that promotes Math, Engineering and Science to women and minorities in high schools around the nation and the Northwest. But the program faces obstacles. It doesn't have the money to support students though their long years of university study.