Robert Dalka: Respect will draw more women into STEM

Monday, January 22, 2018 - 4:32pm

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Illustration by Julia Lauer

 

My first class of the winter semester was an 8:30 a.m. physics class. I sat in the middle row — toward the right side — and sipped my coffee, hoping that the caffeine would kick in soon so I could make it through that first day. After the lecture ended, I started packing my notebook away and took stock of the room. There were only about 15 people in the class, all of whom were men, which was strange to me. There usually is not a high representation of women in most of the physics classes I have taken, but this is the first time that I had a class exclusively with men. It was almost as if, when I stepped through the door of that classroom, I had been transported back in time.

This got me thinking about other classes I have taken as a physics student. There were always more men than women in these classes, and my major definitely lacks diversity with respect to gender. In recent years there has been a big push to get women into STEM fields, and there has been progress, but what more can be done?

To answer this question, I wanted to understand some of the experiences women have to go through in their scientific careers. On Tuesday, Jan. 16 I sat down to talk with Christine Aidala, an associate professor in the department of physics, about her experiences and her journey to where she is now. Aidala’s research is focused on nucleon structure and quantum chromodynamics, the theory of the strong nuclear force.

We started our conversation talking about her undergraduate experience. Aidala attended Yale in the late ‘90s. When I asked her if there were any programs that promoted women in science, she said she was never aware of any, and it just wasn’t something that was talked about at the time. There weren’t many women in her classes either.

“I was definitely in the minority in a lot of my classes,” Aidala said. “It was more extreme among the faculty. There was only one woman who was in the faculty in the physics department, and there were over 50 faculty total.”

During this time, it was no surprise that women were the minority in undergraduate science and engineering programs. It was also common to have few, if any, women mentors within your own department. According to the National Science Foundation and their 2016 indicators report, in 1993 only 9.7 percent of full professors of science and engineering in the United States were women. It is better now, but still not amazing. According to the same report, women held only 24.2 percent of these full professor positions in 2013. I hope, as do many people in science, that this trend will continue as younger women in science and engineering rise to positions of greater leadership.

However, it is hard to close this gap if women feel that they are in an unwelcoming environment. Aidala said that the physics department at Yale was overall supportive of its students, no matter what gender, but sometimes it just takes one bad experience or one awful person to make you feel uneasy.

“I had issues with harassment by one engineer, 20 years older than me, in the physics department,” Aidala said. “I was fortunate that a senior professor saw what was going on, intervened and helped me. I didn’t say anything to him directly because it gets tricky to figure out what to say and when.”

When Aidala was telling me this story, I began to realize how hard it would be for someone to speak out against this type of behavior. This past year has seen a great wave of women sharing their experiences and people coming together to back up these women. This amount of support was not present while Aidala was an undergrad, and without it, it's hard to know where to turn if incidents occur. Part of the barrier to entry of a scientific field can be that feeling of not belonging because of an experience such as this one.

When you do have support, however, it can boost your confidence and make you feel accepted. When Aidala was in her Ph.D. program, she and her husband wanted to start a family. She was not sure what the reaction would be from people she worked with when she told them that she was pregnant. Except for one person who explicitly told her she was ruining her career, she received a great amount of support from everyone. This made it easy to brush off the negative comments.

“When I told my senior professor in my thesis group, he said, ‘This will be a first for the Department of Energy group!’” Aidala said. “It was as if the group was having a baby. It was unexpected, but it was a really unambiguous expression of support.”

In the final minutes of our interview, I asked Aidala if she thought that the University of Michigan is currently doing enough to accept women into scientific fields or if there was more to be done.

“I think there should be a place to study physics here for everyone who wants to,” Aidala said. “I think we can always do more to be welcoming of everyone, and not just in physics, but everywhere,” Aidala said, noting that an accepting environment will lead to more women, or anyone for that matter, pursuing scientific research.

Exposing young students to women scientists and creating programs to inspire young women to pursue science are great ways to increase representation in STEM fields, but there is something that every single person can do. Treat everyone with respect. Every professor, every graduate student, even every undergraduate student currently studying a scientific field needs to make an effort to welcome more women into their area of science. Reach out; be interested in what someone has to say and respect boundaries. Offer your own support, because while big university programs are a great resource, it all comes down to individual interactions and connections between people.

Robert Dalka can be reached at rpdalka@umich.edu.