Female scientists talk about women in science

The research vessel Sikuliaq is docked at its homeport in Seward on Saturday, July 15, preparing for a research cruise through the Beaufort Sea on which oceanographer Dr. Carin Ashjian served as chief scientist. After the recent conclusion of the cruise, Dr. Ashjian was one of eight female scientists to participate in a discussion on women in science, organized by the conservation nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper, at the Kenai Fine Arts Center on Friday.

Eight research and technical professionals gathered at the Kenai Fine Arts Center on Friday to publicly discuss a statistical imbalance in their own population — the under-representation of women in the scientific, engineering, and medical fields they were all part of.

 

The conservation nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper organized the event. Host and Inletkeeper board member Benjamin Jackinsky said it was inspired by the women’s march demonstrations in January and nationwide march for science rallies in April, as well as smaller-scale events closer to home. One was an upcoming trip for Cook Inletkeeper’s science director Sue Mauger, who in February 2018 will be traveling to Antarctica with an international group of about 80 female scientists. She was selected in May to take part in Homeward Bound, a leadership training program for women in science, and since then she’s been having online meetings and discussions with other scientists in the program — an experience she said has made her aware of gender’s influence in personal and professional settings.

“When you begin to pull apart some of those long-held cultural dynamics, you realize there’s a whole other layer of things going on, well beyond the words at table,” Mauger said. “We need to see that stuff.”

The eight panelists, Jackinsky said, were chosen for the diversity of their scientific backgrounds. In addition to Mauger, they included a pharmacist, a physician, a landscape ecologist, an environmental technician, an oceanographer and an environmental chemist. The settings in which they do their work are also diverse. Some are in the public sector, such as Kenai National Wildlife Refuge ecologist Dawn Magness and civil engineer Teresa Stokes, retired from the Alaska Department of Transportation. Others, like Mauger and oceanographer Dr. Carin Ashjian of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, work at nonprofits. One, environmental chemist Jene’ Worley, is an entrepreneur who founded her own research consultancy.

Being scientists, they started by examining fundamental assumptions. The first question from moderator Maya Johnson — an environmental technician at Trihydro Corporation — was, “What is the value of women in science?”

Dr. Kristen Mitchell, a physician at Peninsula Internal Medicine and chair of Central Peninsula Hospital’s medicine committee, answered that “having women in science gives us, as a human population, a different group of questions that we’re seeking answers to.”

“There’s so many health conditions that women and men experience differently,” Mitchell said. “We don’t actually know about that until we recruit women into a study and look specificly at how this treatment affects women… So it’s important to have women at the table in leadership roles to ask these questions. It isn’t true that only women can ask those questions, but I think it’s certainly true that women are more likely to ask those questions, to look around and see different problems in the world that need addressing. So part of it is, we learn what we look at. And if we’re not asking questions that are relevant to our experience, we’re not going to solve those.

Environmental chemist Worley owns the consulting firm Cook Inlet Environmental, which has provided environmental research for the local oil and gas industry since she founded it in 2000. She spoke on gender trends in industry as both a female scientist and an employer of female scientists.

“It’s entirely possible that we all have a tendency to hire people who look like us, and that are like us,” Worley said. “In industry, we need women to hire people like themselves… We need women in the workplace, we need women managers, we need CEOs. I do that. But at the same time, when I post a job for a scientist, I recieve a barrage of highly qualified women scientists. It’s impressive how many of these resumes I get from young women who have great qualifications. So it’s puzzling to me why women are underrepresented in local industries when this is what happens. I just hired qualified applicants and I ended up with a a lot of women.

Citing numbers from the 2010 U.S Census, Johnson said women hold a percentage of college degrees — 57 percent — roughly proportional to their share of the population, though 31 percent of these are in science, engineering or math fields.

“Once of you get into the career field, only 25 percent of those careers are positions held by women,” Johnson said.

Oceanographer Ashjian recently led a staff of 20 scientists on a research trip studying the food web of the Beaufort Sea aboard the R/V Sikuliaq, a research ship based in Seward. The Fairbanks Daily-News Miner reported she’d been among 11 other women on the Sikuliaq, seven of them scientists. Ashjian — who as chief scientist had managed both logistics and research for the trip — said that female representation also decreases at higher levels of leadership.

“We have a decline in women along every step of the career path,” Ashjian said. “As you become more senior, you’re surrounded by fewer and fewer women. To start with — say at the assistant professor level — the number of women assistant professors is already lower than the number of women who are gaining degrees in oceanography and could be qualified to be professors. And you see that every step as you go up… In aggregate, we’ve seen this and have been trying to figure out why this is happening, and how we can make the career path more appealing, make it as easy for women to succeed as well as men.”

Causes of the gender imbalance are complex and likely for multiple reasons. Those discussed at the forum ranged from the burden of raising a family, which has traditionally fallen largely on women, to cultural norms that discourage women from aggressively pursuing math skills and career ambitions. For some, the dearth of women in scientific leadership is a self-perpetuating problem. Some participants said they’d never been purposefully held back from scientific careers, but many recalled being the only girl in a science classroom. As Mitchell put it, “it’s hard to grow into something you don’t see.”

Mauger said social conventions contribute to the imbalance.

“Disciplines, they have different personalities that you learn pretty quickly when you’re in school — the ichthyologists are this way, the entomologists are that way,” Mauger said. “They have cultures. I think as a young person, if you’re perceptive of them — which I think women tend to be — and you see that culture as something you don’t see yourself fitting into super-well, you could easily divert yourself away from it. So maybe that’s where our perception gets in our way — we are really paying a lot of attention to those social cues that tell us it’s going to be an awkward group to be in. The idea that we tend to gravitate toward people who are like us, those fields are already dominated by the male cultures.

An extreme example may be the oil and gas industry. Worley’s work has brought her to oilfields, platforms and man-camps — “…they really are man-camps,” she said — since she began working at Alyeska Pipeline in the early 1990s. Though Worley said she’s seen dramatic improvement in treatment of women in the oil industry — driven more by policy changes than culture — she said that as recently as 2015 she was discouraged from visiting a Cook Inlet oil platform by managers who would have preferred for her to send a man.

“There’s a 200-person facility that has two women in all of operations,” Worley said. “It’s just not going to get better until that’s addressed, and that only gets better when women move up the food chain and hire people like themselves.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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