women in science

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This week, the world was enchanted when the National Science Foundation released the first ever image of a black hole. Among the memes and debates and general excitement, people also turned the spotlight on Katie Bouman, the 29-year-old scientist who developed a crucial algorithm that helped produce the historic image.

Katie Bouman with the fully-rendered black hole image.

It was a great moment for women in science. In fact, it’s a great time for women in science as far as visibility is concerned. Stories of powerful women in STEM fields are trending in virtually every cultural sphere, from young adult novels to clothing lines to entertainment and film, where the real-life women of “Hidden Figures” become household names and fictional women like “Black Panther’s” Shuri serve as a different kind of superhero for aspiring young minds.

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NASA's 'Hidden Figures' transformed into Legos
00:57 - Source: CNN

Then, of course, there’s the memory of decades of hard-working STEM women that cascade backward from achievements like Bouman’s. MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab compared a photo of Bouman among stacks of hard drives to a famous 1969 photo of computer scientist Margaret Hamilton standing by the thousands of sheets of code she and her team wrote for the Apollo Project. These led to mentions of Annie Cannon, Ada Lovelace and other prominent scientific minds throughout history.

Yes, it’s a great time for celebrating women in science. Unfortunately, research shows that women in STEM fields face persistent challenges and biases that limit their influence and growth, and may dissuade other women from pursuing STEM professions despite clear cultural encouragement at large.

A large number of women leave STEM fields and never return

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals a discouraging connection between parenthood and attrition in STEM fields. By analyzing data from science industry surveys, researchers discovered that 43% of women left full-time STEM employment after their first child, either to pursue a career in another field or to leave the workforce entirely.

Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and author of the study, said the numbers reveal a problem specific to STEM fields.

“This points to this being an issue about STEM employment specifically and not full time in employment in general. If it was an issue of people not being able to manage new parenthood and working full time, we wouldn’t see that kind of attrition,” Cech told CNN.

“There’s a cultural expectation in STEM that if you have responsibilities outside of your full-time work, you aren’t as committed a scientist,” she continues.

Hype is good, but practical solutions are needed to overcome biases

However, motherhood is just one lens through which the paucity of women in STEM fields is examined, and casting women as just mothers or potential mothers does more to weigh down the problem than to solve it. For instance, the study points out that women in general leave the STEM workforce at a higher rate than men, regardless of whether they are parents and regardless of measurable performance levels or ability.

That’s a pretty difficult nut to crack, and it may take more than the occasional female celebrity scientist to reverse. STEM organizations like the National Math and Science Foundation and NASA have tried to actively recruit and retain more women, but abundant research shows the gap in both representation and pay persists. In fact, in the field of computer science, there are actually less women represented than there were in the 1980s.

To Cech, that means the problem is more subtle and ingrained than just accessibility and opportunity.

“Recognition and visibility of women’s contirbutions in STEM is incredibly important,” she says. “[But] it hasn’t resulted in an influx or retention of women in those fields, in part because these biases run deeper. Because they are less obvious than the kind of overt biases that we tend to think about, these things are more cultural and more subtle and harder to move the needle on.”

Put simply, Cech says, “There is an idea that there is a particular way scientific genius manifests, and often that does not look like a woman.”

While women like Bouman, and her countless peers and forebears, will always serve as shining examples of what the place of women in science could be on a universal scale, it may take subtler, more consistent changes to turn the tide.

These could include more mentorship and informal support of women within their specific fields and organizations, which can lead to more recognition and more opportunities.

Cech also suggests that STEM companies create an easier path for people to re-enter full-time STEM positions after a period of absence or part-time work. It can also include, yes, more support for women and men with children.

Together, these changes could help whittle down the hardened perceptions of STEM women, whether they be working mothers, Wakandan royalty, NASA heroes or one of the thousands upon thousands of others whose names we’ll never know who just want to pursue their work in an environment of parity and respect.