Women from across the world continue to be underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In the U.S.—where women make up nearly half of the workforce—they were merely 26 percent of the STEM workforce in 2011 according to the United States Census Bureau. President Obama’s White House worked hard to expand the participation of women, girls and minorities in STEM fields by encouraging mentoring; initiating Let Girls Learn, a program to ensure that adolescent girls worldwide reach secondary school; and retaining women in science careers by investing in affordable childcare.
Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a grassroots organization called 500 Women Scientists was established to help propel and maintain the momentum of such efforts. Its founders and members pledged to speak up for science and for women. They would do this by boosting scientific literacy through public engagement, strengthening the role of science in society, and changing the face of what a scientist looks like. More than 20,000 people, mostly women but also a couple thousand men, signed the pledge.
Three weeks into the new year—on Thursday, January 18, 2018—this pledge was reaffirmed when we launched Request a Woman Scientist. It is a budding, global, public list of professional women in the sciences interested in interacting with other professionals, journalists and members of the public as speakers, panelists, experts, course leaders and advocates for diversity, equity and women in STEM.
The idea was powered by a small group of Colorado-based women: neuroscientist Liz McCullagh (University of Colorado, Anschutz), ecologist Jane Zelikova (based in Boulder and co-founder of 500 Women Scientists) and me (a freelance conservation scientist and recent transplant to Fort Collins). I teamed up with Liz and Jane last year after watching a five-person, all-male, all-white, panel—following a keynote delivered by a man. I was a visiting scientist at the university hosting this film festival, and I didn’t feel particularly included or represented. Worse, sitting next to me were two female graduate students, who, I thought, could not begin to picture themselves up on that all-male stage. I was fuming but I was also thinking. Meanwhile, Liz and Jane, whom I had not yet met, were brewing the same idea that I was having. Soon we converged: Simply, we wanted to create a way for people to easily find women scientists.
Four of us now shoulder the day-to-day management of the database. We are joined by biologist and science writer Maryam Zaringhalam, a science and technology policy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington D.C. AAAS is one of the world’s leading science organizations and, through its fellowship program, inserts scientists into federal agencies to improve the evidence-base with which decisions are made (both Jane and I are former AAAS fellows but we both left under Trump; she relayed her experience to High Country News while my views are aired in a blog I contributed to National Geographic).
Only a week after we launched Request a Woman Scientist, 2500 women, from undergraduates to professors and MDs, from 78 countries had enlisted to be a resource. The U.S. dominated with some 1550 women (some of whom are immigrant scientists and describe themselves as such), followed by the U.K. (227 women signed up), Canada (149), Australia (131), Germany (37), India and the Netherlands (35 women from each), Mexico (34), Spain (31) and South Africa (30). The leading city was (and continues to be) London (75). From a total of 18 countries, 10 or more women had signed up. Two weeks after the launch (Feb. 1), the list grew to 3,500 women from 93 countries (see pie chart below); 22 percent of them identify as coming from underrepresented groups. Thus, in less than half a month, 3,500 women scientists from around the world were ready to impart knowledge and share their expertise.
These women embody an impressive array of disciplines and skills: astrophysics, volcanology, herpetology, permafrost biogeochemistry, photonics, combinatorics, neuroprosthetics, collective decision-making, emergency radiology, disaster preparedness and health equity. Some identify as mothers as well as scientists and two, Layla Katiraee and Alison Bernstein, oversee a website that epitomizes this combination and personifies it with Legos and Super Hero cards: SciMoms.
Several other women stood out including Chandra Degia, a freelance environmental scientist and radio personality in Kingston, Jamaica, where she's focused on health, sustainable tourism and addressing “wicked” environmental problems; she signed up to promote equity, diversity and science activism. In Ethiopia, conservation ornithologist Bruktawit Abdu Mahamued researches migratory bird flyways and the status of critically endangered birds and their habitats. She’s currently an EDGE Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and also affiliated with the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society; she would like to conduct career and professional development sessions. Maha Joana Cziesielski, a PhD student at the Red Sea Research Center in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, endeavors to help corals acclimate to climate change and is excited to speak to journalists about it. “In the lab, we culture the small sea anemone Aiptasia pallida that acts as a model organism to studying coral stress response. In the field, we dive to collect corals across the Red Sea to investigate the differences in their tolerances across environmental gradients. And sometimes we just dive for the sheer pleasure of it,” she says.
London-based professor of digital media Elaine Chew is a computational music scientist and pianist ready to deliver lectures and lecture-performances to the public on music and mathematics, music cognition or expressivity, and music and arrhythmia. PhD student Jen Thum describes herself as “your friendly neighborhood Egyptologist” and is available for public talks and hands-on history; she’s at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Marian Asantewah Nkansah is a chemist assessing water quality of hand-dug wells and boreholes and heavy metals in herbs, spices, tea and meat sold in markets in Ghana; she would like to deliver lectures beyond her university borders. And finally, Karen Holmberg is a New York City-based archaeologist-volcanologist doing collaborations with artists and interested in joining panels (disparaging “manels”). This inspiring list of women scientists goes on!
The database is already being used: journalist Jim Daley used it to find Lori Burrows (Ontario) who provided comment for an article Daley wrote for The Scientist about the immune systems of bacteria. Margaret Stanley was contacted by Science Learning Hub in New Zealand to video chat with children wanting to learn about lizard ecology and how to build a lizard garden; as the school is fairly rural, scientists are unlikely to visit in person. “The children want to know how to increase biodiversity in their school and their backyards at home,” Stanley told me in an e-mail after I asked her to describe what a lizard garden is. “A lizard garden usually has lots of rocks and structure that lizards can use for refuges and basking in the sun, and will have plants that provide food either via small berries or by attracting lots of insects.”
We have had other interactions: A science fiction writer—lamenting that her genre is male-dominated—asked us on Twitter if she may use the database to consult women on the accuracy of the science in her writing. This was not a need we anticipated! Several women in the database have been contacted to speak at events for International Women’s Day (March 8—mark your calendars!). And our colleague Liz McCullagh— “wearing” her infant daughter—is headed to a Science Talk conference in Portland, Oregon next month to present a poster about Request a Woman Scientist itself at the invite of Allison Coffin, assistant professor at Washington State University, Vancouver, and president of Science Talk (Coffin signed up too and is available to talk about neuroscience).
This fresh initiative has had a successful first few weeks marking a promising start of 2018 for women in STEM. I hope that the database continues to be populated and used, and improves the visibility of diverse women scientists across all sectors of society. Please encourage women scientists to enlist and help spread the word about how to find a woman scientist.
I thank the Safina Center for supporting me as a 2018 fellow and woman scientist, for helping promote our new Request a Woman Scientist site, and for advocating for those eager and deserving of a stronger voice.