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A Summit on Women in Science

From left: Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, and Olga Khazan of The Atlantic magazine. Photo: The Atlantic

What do a NASCAR driver, award-winning author, and cosmetic lab manager all have in common?

They are just a few of the women and leaders who joined female scientists, professors, and journalists at the recent In Pursuit: An Atlantic Summit on Women in Science event in Washington, D.C. Underwritten by L’Oreal USA and presented by The Atlantic magazine, the summit brought together leading scientific experts to highlight recent achievement by women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—as well as strategies for ensuring that more female innovators flourish in these fields.

According to The Atlantic, despite the tremendous impact of just a handful of women scientists, only 24% of today’s STEM workers are female. How does this substantial gender gap impact the economy, human development, and the environment? And what can be done to pave the way for today’s women scientists—and future women scientists—to unleash the discoveries of tomorrow?

You can find out here because the entire two-hour event was recorded. However, if you only have a few minutes to spare, here are my top picks from among all the discussions in the summit.

History, Rewritten

My favorite discussion was with Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, and Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures. Both women discovered the stories of unseen women doing heroic things and brought their virtually unknown achievements out of the shadows of history. In the candid conversation on women’s absence in history, each author encouraged a change in how we perceive and study science.

“We must fight the narrative that science is all-male, all-white, very boring, and filled with tortured geniuses with no social skills.”—Liza Mundy

 

“Learning the history of the science was one of the most thrilling, engaging, interesting things I’ve ever done.”—Margot Lee Shetterly

 

Closing the Gap

Another panel discussion explored ways that industries and universities can become more inclusive to women and more diverse. It featured Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, which just redesigned its “intro to engineering” course, focused on underwater robotics, to close a gender gap in performance and increase learning for all; Emmanuel Schanzer, founder and co-director of Bootstrap, a developer of computational curriculum modules for grades 6–12; and Cynthia Winston-Proctor, professor in the Department of Psychology at Howard University and president of the Society of STEM Women of Color, a membership organization devoted to enabling women of color to fully pursue STEM careers.

During the discussion, the panelists noted that at universities, keeping women in STEM fields where they are typically underrepresented—such as computer science, engineering, and physics—means not “dumbing it down.”

“It means making it just as challenging, but providing lots of support . . . making it possible to see why what you’re learning actually matters in the world. We have to work within our workplace at changing culture; we have to work on inclusion. There’s just no question that we have long way to go.”—Maria Klawe

 

As a woman scientist, I felt both validated and inspired hearing the experiences from the mostly female panelists on their successes and challenges working in the science field.

There’s also something to be said about speaking openly about what the problems are and admitting how it will take immense effort in overcoming deep-rooted stereotypes and archaic teaching practices to truly open the doors to include everyone.

By having these kinds of discussions together, whether hosted by an established publication or in the halls of your local science center, we can make a meaningful change to our culture.

On that note, I leave you with a few more resounding quotes from modern-day “hidden figures” who were part of the In Pursuit summit.

“Understand your worth and understand how to wield your power in an astute and thoughtful way.”—Maria Freire, president and executive director, Foundation for the National Institutes of Health

 

“If we want to make the world for our daughters and for future generations the way we want it to be, you stick with it.”—Pardis Sabeti, computational geneticist, Harvard University, Broad Institute, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute

 

 

Carlin Hsueh is project manager of ASTC’s World Biotech Tour, a three-year global initiative
showcasing the impact of science centers in bringing together key stakeholders to promote
public engagement in the science, technologies, and societal issues related to biotechnology.