Balancing the Equation

Words by Aubrey Bulkeley

Photos by Miranda Daviduk

Aspiring plant scientist, Kora Purdy, 9, looks at a magnified fossil at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Earlier, Kora learned about local fossils during a geology workshop held by the Women in Graduate Science and Eugene Science Center.

As graduate student Lisa Eytel marches into a classroom at the University of Oregon with seven elementary-aged girls following like a row of ducklings, she asks, “Where are the cookies?”

With this question, Eytel launches the hands-on science lessons for the day. She will teach the girls basic forensic science techniques to discover who “stole” the package of cookies in a program called Girls’ Science Adventures.

On this particular Saturday, the fourth-through-sixth grade girls learn how to analyze fingerprints and handwriting samples to eliminate cookie thief suspects. They also perform a process called chromatography, which separates the different components of ink to determine the pen that was used to write the ransom note.

The program is a collaboration between Eugene Science Center and UO Women in Graduate Science, a professional development organization for which Eytel is an outreach coordinator.  ESC Education Director Karyn Knecht said the goal of the six-week program is to “develop confidence and STEM identities with young girls.”

A 2013 study by the National Science Foundation found males scored slightly higher than females in science as early as fourth grade. This trend continued as students progressed higher in education. The NSF also reported in 2015 that only 28 percent of all workers in science and engineering occupations were women. Initiatives to address this disparity have increased in recent years. Groups like UOWGS are working, both within the university and outside it, to increase gender equality in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

According to Eytel, the focus is on grades four through six because studies have shown this age range is “the most formative and where girls’ interest in the STEM subjects start to fall off dramatically.”

Girls may be less inclined to continue studying STEM subjects due to peer pressure at this age, Eytel said. They also do not see many representations of themselves within the STEM fields. “So our outreach programs are saying, ‘Hey look, there are people other than just cis white men in these fields,’” Eytel said.

From left to right, Kora Purdy, Brianna Jecklin, Wren Wooten and Emma DeCicco analyze handwriting as part of a forensic science workshop. The workshop was held by the UO Women in Graduate Science group and the Eugene Science Center. Karyn Knecht of the Science Center said the workshops are aimed at fourth-graders because that is the approximate age girls begin to lose interest in science.

Holding space in the classroom

Eytel saw the issue of gender representation in her own educational experience. In elementary school her science teachers were women, but as she continued in her science studies men became more prevalent.

For her undergraduate work, Eytel attended Russell Sage College, an all-women’s school in Troy, New York. She said one of the determining factors for her choice was the school’s strong forensic science program. While there, she focused on chemistry and forensics, and because it was a small school Eytel took courses at a partner college that was co-ed.

One was an advanced genetics course that was nearly balanced in gender, yet in her observation, the men dominated the discussion during class. The distinction between this course and all-female ones was obvious. “Men were the ones that were speaking up more and more… and that was just a stark contrast to what I had seen over the past couple years,” Eytel said.

During a lab discussion for the same class, Eytel said a male student answered a question incorrectly one day, and when a female student corrected him, “he snapped at her and made a snide remark.” This shocked Eytel because “any comments that have an inkling of sexism at RSC get knocked down immediately by other students and the women are taught and encouraged to ‘take up space’ in the classroom.”

After finishing her undergraduate studies in 2014, Eytel visited potential schools with PhD programs in chemistry, specifically those with synthetic organic chemistry labs. While comparing programs, she examined the male-to-female ratios in both the professor and student levels. She also looked to see if women were working in the labs because she felt it reflected the culture of the department.

On a visit to one university that was recruiting her, she asked a male grad student why “there was only one woman in the lab of 20 people.” He replied, “Well, girls don’t do organic chemistry.”

I was flabbergasted,” she said. “I really wanted to argue with the student. I was angry and shocked that I, a female who was doing undergraduate research in synthetic organic chemistry and hoped to pursue a graduate degree in the field, was told that I didn’t belong by a fellow student.”

These experiences made Eytel even more vocal. She said society discourages girls from speaking up and asking questions, and “that alone leads to fewer girls building the communication and the thinking processes leading into science.” But leading programs like Girls’ Science Adventures is her way of encouraging girls and influencing the next generation.  

Alice Greenberg is a third year physics graduate student at the University of Oregon. She spends a Saturday afternoon in the dark basement of Huestis Hall in the CAMCOR lab studying electron microscopy transmissions. To foster a more inclusive and welcoming environment for women, Alice co-founded the UO Women in Physics Group. STEM fields have historically been male-dominated and physics is one field that is particularly gender imbalanced.

Where Bias is Born

Sara Hodges, interim vice provost and dean of the UO Graduate School, has also observed gender bias. As a child, she would run through the halls of Vanderbilt University, where her father was a medical librarian, and count how many women were in each class picture of medical students. Women were significantly underrepresented in many of them. Hodges used this example to illustrate implicit bias, which is the result of repeated messages of cultural norms. If men are the only gender being represented in science, whether in schools, work or popular culture, then people will begin to infer that men are the only ones who can be scientists.

Today, Hodges holds a PhD in psychology, but she remembers when women weren’t even allowed to enroll in higher education. Hodges acknowledged that implicit bias is a complex and intricate problem that is getting more challenging to solve. “There are laws to outlaw the obvious. Now we are left with the things that are more subtle,” Hodges said.

Hodges has studied how perceived effort factored in the success of men and women in STEM fields. She explained that women tend to perceive that they put in more effort than both their male and female counterparts. This led them to have ‘imposter syndrome’ or the belief that they don’t belong. Rather than thinking the challenges they faced were a normal experience that everyone went through, the women assumed the problems were ones that only they encountered.

“It’s the moments of doubt that make the difference,” Hodges says. “What are you telling yourself when you feel you don’t belong?” This moment can be a decision point as to whether a woman continues in a traditionally male-dominated field like science, or not.

Hodges identified the UO mathematics department, which currently has 13 women in its 57-person faculty, as one that is disproportionately male and may have something to share about the struggles involved with this disparity. However, the Association for Women in Mathematics’ UO chapter declined to comment, saying, “it would be inappropriate for us to have this conversation publicly, due to the changing climate in our department.”

Kara Zappitelli is a fourth year graduate student in physics at the University of Oregon studying retinal implants. Working in a clean lab, Kara suits up in a hairnet, face mask and plastic coverall over her clothes to prevent any contamination.

Women Balancing the Bias

Of the 100 women who attended the 2016 Pacific Northwest Women in Science Retreat hosted by UOWGS, Alice Greenberg, Amanda Steinhebel and Kara Zappitelli were three of only five women from the physics field. According to Steinhebel, the three founded the University of Oregon Women in Physics (WIP) organization after the retreat to “create a supportive network of women in the department, so people feel like they belong and are not isolated.”

UOWGS President Andrea Steiger said the group was founded 14 years ago in the chemistry department and is still “heavily linked” with it. She said the chemistry department is lucky.

“While we don’t have many female faculty members, we have a lot of faculty members that are very supportive and really, really trying to get to a really good 50:50,” said Steiger. According to her, most science departments at the UO, such as the physics department, are aware of the gender imbalance and are working to make it better.

Even though physics is making an effort, women are still notably underrepresented, both at UO and in the field overall. According to the UO physics department website, there are two women tenure-related faculty members out of 34 total. In 2017, just 12 percent of the admitted graduate students in the department were women. This year, that number grew to 19 percent, according to Steinhebel. But the national average for women in physics is 20 percent. “We’re striving for the bare minimum. We just want to be average,” said Zappitelli.

It took the women time and a lot of conversations to start to convince the men in the department there was an issue. “Science people want concrete examples, but we don’t have the perfect example,” said Greenberg. *Although according to Zappitelli, they had a good illustration of the gender imbalance two years ago when the admitting class for the graduate physics program had zero women enroll.

WIP has also been vocal about the need to hire more women faculty. “We’ve inserted ourselves in the hiring process,” said Greenberg.

In January, the three women hosted the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, a regional event hosted by a different university each year in conjunction with the American Physical Society. According to its website, the goal of the APS is to help undergraduate women gain “information about graduate school and professions in physics, and access to other women in physics of all ages with whom they can share experiences, advice and ideas.”

Over 200 undergraduate physics majors from the Pacific Northwest attended.

Outreach like this is the positive momentum women in STEM need to overcome a legacy of bias against them. Hodges, too, believes in positive action to change implicit bias. She said, “To counteract it, we must do explicit things.”

*Edit: This sentence was corrected and appears differently in the print version of Flux 2018.