Women in STEM battle gender bias

Apr 23, 2018

The STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – have traditionally been dominated by men. And that can make it tough for women to break in – or gain respect. The Me Too movement is highlighting those issues. And some female professionals in the Great Lakes Region have their own stories about the culture of gender bias.

Inside the Great Lakes Center field station, just a few miles from the Buffalo State campus, Alicia Perez-Fuentetaja checks on a collection tiny pet fish.

The field station is where some of her research takes place. She’s an aquatic ecologist well-known for her work with emerald shiners and the detection of antidepressants in the brains of fish from the Niagara River.

But she says that as a woman, building a career in the sciences isn’t easy. "I remember when females in the field would get pregnant or get married the comments from the fellow males would be, 'Poof she’s out of the game now, she’s got kids we can’t count on her now.'

"Sort of like being a mother somehow affected you’re ability to do your work."

Perez-Fuentetaja says as change begins to happen, women learn to speak up.

"If you think someone does or says something inappropriate we tend not to say anything," she said. "Another hurdle for women -- if you’re doing very well, a man would go speak to the dean and ask for a raise. A woman would not. If they ask for a raise, it’s for a little tiny raise, not a big one, right?"

In a recent survey of female STEM professionals who work in predominantly male environments -- 78 percent said they’ve experienced discrimination.

In that same PEW Research Group survey, close to 50 percent said they’ve experienced sexual harassment and their gender has made it hard for them to succeed in their field.

Monica Dus knows that feeling. She’s an assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Michigan.

Back, in her graduate years, about a decade ago, she recalls a day when she was sent home, because she was wearing pink.  She was teaching high school students.

"It was 8:30 in the morning, and I was told I had to go change my pink shoes," she said. "Because it was unprofessional for a scientist to wear pink."

Unfortunately, the problems didn’t stop with the color of her shoes.

She’s uncomfortable repeating some of the things said to her over years. But, there’s one experience from her undergraduate years she did share.

"I was quite thin, and one of the male graduate students asked me if I got my period, because I was so thin and asked me all other kinds of really inappropriate questions," she remembered.

Liesl Folks, dean of the University at Buffalo's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, works to combat those issues. She leads a project called NAVIGATE, which aims to give students the tools to fight gender bias. 

She says all too often women in STEM choose to abandon their careers because of gender-based conflicts at work.

"So, what we see, it’s very, very common for women when they hit these barriers is they take that first step," she said.

Folks said the first step starts with telling management or human resources. "If it turns out badly, and that first action doesn’t result in a positive change in their work environment, what [women will] do, is they’ll go back to their office, and say, 'I’m going to avoid the situation.' 

"'I’m going to work harder than I ever did, I’m going to do better work, and I’m going to be recognized for my better work. I’m going to just try to stay out of the way of whatever else is negative.' But that ends up being soul-destroying."

Some of the skills she teaches in the program include forming alliances with coworker. This will help provide support if something should happen. Also, before jumping ship, female STEM professionals should clearly evaluate all of their options.

From Edge for Scholars, a website for academics: "Scientist share the Most Awful Sexist things they have experienced." Some examples: 

  • Male faculty: "I'm curious to see what [speaker] looks like, because on the poster she looks like a high school cheerleader"
  • "I'm surprised she has kids. She doesn't act like a mom."
  • "Women do not have the mental capacity to be engineers"
  • "Once you have kids, you'll just want to stay home anyway, so what's the point of getting a PhD?"
  • After describing all my accomplishments at an award ceremony, follows with "and most importantly she just got married!"
  • A senior male to me when I was pregnant on the T-T: "how are you going to manage teaching and breastfeed?" While making boob grab motions.
  • “You should ask your students to dress more appropriately. It's hard for the men to concentrate around them.”
  • After getting a new investigator award - male colleague (in front of table of people) "guess they give xxx award for being cute"