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Women in science discuss being women in science

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2011

One woman listened as a male professor told her she should not go to graduate school because she would be depriving a man of an opportunity to support his family. Another had to nix her male colleagues’ chivalrous notion of slinging a porta-potti by helicopter to the volcano she was studying. A third was told she could not be promoted to supervisor because men don’t like being supervised by women.

Women scientists face unique challenges and sometimes find distinctive opportunities. To mark Women’s History Month, I sent a questionnaire to a few Alaska women scientists who have excelled at their craft for a few decades.

Following are the edited responses of two of them — Nettie LaBelle-Hamer, director of the Alaska Satellite Facility and Joan Braddock, director of the University of Alaska Press and Dean Emerita of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ College of Natural Science and Mathematics. LaBelle-Hamer earned her doctorate degree in space physics in 1994, switched to Earth science, and became director of the Alaska Satellite Facility in 2002. Braddock worked on bioremediation in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 and later researched biodegradation of contaminants in cold soils.

Were there more hurdles for you to clear in science because you were a woman?

JB: I have certainly had the classic experiences that women in science report, such as being the only women in a group of professionals and thus asked to photocopy materials. Or, being paid less than men. There were several notable experiences where I would make a suggestion in a group that was ignored until a man made the same suggestion later in the conversation. Since it has also happened on occasions when I became more senior, it is hard to imagine that gender did not play some role. On the other token, I strongly feel that I got some great opportunities by being one of few women in science at UAF. I often was asked to serve on interesting committees or searches for high-level administrative positions.

NL-H: More hurdles in the early years than later, I think. In graduate school, when I was having trouble with a particular class assignment, I was told that maybe I should consider going home and being a mom for a while. Oh, and one of my favorites: I was told that I should consider being a teacher since, you know, I am a woman and all. I still don’t know what that one means, but somehow I think it was insulting. Just for the record, of the 11 people who entered the space physics and atmospheric graduate program the same year as me, I was the only one married, and the only one with a child — and the first one to get a degree.

Has public perception changed about women scientists?

NL-H: Things are better. The younger generation seems to have less hang-ups about women in science than previous ones. When I became director I was asked if there were any ramifications due to my being a woman. I said no and I believed it. I think there are some of the older (male) scientists here that think of women as lesser, but it is really fading.

JB: It has, to some degree. There are more and more women in graduate school and, although there are still more women falling out of the system before entering careers in science, it is less frequent than it used to be. Nevertheless, all is not equal. For example, even very recent salary analyses show disparities by gender.

Have there been hurdles you have faced that a man would not have faced?

JB: In my career those experiences were offset somewhat by opportunities linked to being a woman in science. I did face salary inequities in my early career and was the most poorly paid person of the 29 faculty members in my department for a time. Eventually, that was rectified, but I had to ask to make it happen.

NL-H: Doing lab work while pregnant. Or taking the (Graduate Record Examination) with Braxton-Hicks contractions. Or being called out of a lecture because my child had a fever and needed to go home. We raised our family before the Family Medical Leave Act, so my husband did not get to leave work for small things like childbirth or strep throat. He got off less than one day for the births of our kids. Times have definitely changed! Now men take off weeks for their child’s birth.

What would you tell a girl who is contemplating a career in science?

JB: There are exciting opportunities in science. I greatly enjoyed my active time as a scientist. I have, though, cautioned women that they should not assume that there is absolutely no gender bias remaining. There are still issues including salary issues at some institutions. I don’t think you want to proceed thinking you are going to be taken advantage of, but women should also keep their eyes open and be willing to make sure they are being treated equitably.

NL-H: Go for it! If you love science, you should be doing it. I’d say the same thing to a boy.

More experiences from the field:

To mark Women’s History Month, I sent a questionnaire to a few Alaska women scientists who have excelled at their craft for a few decades. What follows are edited responses of two more Alaska women scientists — Pat Holloway, a horticulturist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Georgeson Botanical Garden, and Tina Neal of the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage.

Holloway earned her doctorate in 1982 and has since taught classes, conducted research and has helped jump-start the specialty cut flower industry in Alaska. Neal is a volcano geologist who got her first full-time job with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1983. Her work as a hazard specialist has taken her from Alaska to Nepal to Kazakhstan.

Were there more hurdles for you to clear in science because you were a woman?

TN: Very few, but I think I have been quite fortunate to have had very supportive teachers, supervisors and coworkers throughout my career. I was never discouraged from doing anything because of my gender (except being told I could not be a golf caddy). Early on, there were minor confrontations with inappropriate behavior in the workplace and, in one instance, a well-meaning attempt at chivalry (slinging a portable toilet by helicopter to an eruption site for me) that I nixed.

At sea for a month in the mid-80s, I had to deal with annoying harassment that was completely gender-based, but at least I was allowed on the vessel! My cabin-mate, a world-renowned senior scientist, remembered a time early in her career when women were not allowed on research vessels, period.

PH: As an undergraduate biology student, I had an opportunity to apply for a job working in the biology research greenhouse. It was my dream job at the time but I didn’t get it, because the professor felt I was not capable of picking up a 50-pound bag of fertilizer. I never thought about gender differences until that day.

My biggest hurdle was financing. Most horticulture undergraduates in the 1970s and ‘80s were women, but women were not expected to go beyond a bachelor’s degree. When they did, like me, few research assistantships were offered. I had to work nearly full time in addition to completing my research. I was a teaching assistant, edited an undergraduate newsletter, worked in the bio-medical library, shelved groceries, nearly killed myself harvesting commercial Christmas trees and worked as a postal clerk just to put myself through school.

Has public perception changed about women scientists?

PH: I think a lot has changed for women in horticultural science, and there are many more opportunities simply because women are not always pre-judged by a man looking through a 1970s lens. There is still a giant issue with convincing women to enter a science field. The majority of undergraduates in horticulture programs are women, but they are not encouraged or mentored to continue for higher degrees.

TN: Absolutely and for the better! It is no longer an enormous anomaly. Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Sylvia Earle, Tanya Atwater, Jane Goodall, these names come to me quickly as those whose prominence and accomplishment has made the image of a woman scientist more mainstream and normal. There are so many more women at all levels compared to 30 years ago that it isn’t a surprise any more to see the media cut away to an interview with a top woman. That is surely true in my agency (USGS).

Have there been hurdles you have faced that a man would not have faced?

TN: I’ve been very fortunate to, by and large, not have to deal with overtly hostile and exclusionary attitudes.

PH: I have encountered everything from pay discrimination to sexist bosses who loved nothing better than to spend the day telling joke after joke about the size of a woman’s body parts. As a student, I just had to grin and bear it. But now, I — and most young women I know in science — wouldn’t hesitate to verbally stop that behavior in its tracks.

What would you tell a girl who is contemplating a career in science?

PH: Complete a bachelor’s degree in a science field, and then get a job. Get a master’s if it will help you advance into a career. Contemplate a Ph.D. only if you work for private industry and it is required to do the job. Science is exciting and interesting given sufficient funding and the time to do it right.

TN: Science allows you to be creative, caring, engaged, thoughtful, aware, relevant, stimulated, helpful. It opens the world — I have had the opportunity to travel many places and learn so much about the diversity of our planet. You can live a variety of lives as a scientist: globe-trotting adventurer, stable rooted mother and wife or partner, or anywhere in between. There are no firm molds you must fit into. You live a long life these days: you can have several careers and science may be only one phase. It will serve you well in all other vocations.

I like to tell young audiences that I want the first astronaut on Mars to be a volcanologist. Thinking about it, the first astronaut to land on Mars could well be a woman; I hope she reads this column!



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