This has been a challenging year for women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, otherwise known by the acronym STEM. To be sure, every year is challenging for women and other under-represented groups. But lately more of those issues that plague them are being brought to light.
Within the past 12 months, there have been stories in the media about senior (male) scientists who insinuated that telescopes and other hardware are for “boys.” Another scientist stated that women were distracting in laboratories. There were blatant reports of overt sexual harassment that went on for years, with the victims of these actions being the subject of a backlash on social media.
There were clashes over panels discussing online and gaming harassment at a highly regarded interactive festival that were canceled due to threats (fortunately, rescheduled). There were studies released examining these issues, such as a report in which 100 percent of women of color interviewed for the research noted they had experienced gender bias. Campaigns such as #ILookLikeAnEngineer were inspired by negative comments toward the way a woman (an engineer in real life) looked in an ad.
And, just this week, new allegations surfaced about sexual harassment and misconduct by an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History and a genetics professor at the University of Chicago.
It is, therefore, incredibly timely and important that the United Nations has declared Thursday, Feb. 11, to be the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Its charge includes the call to “eliminate gender inequality in science, employment, opportunities, and education.”
Such events remind us that it’s not all bad news for women and other represented groups in STEM fields. The two of us have enjoyed long and successful careers in STEM fields, particularly in science and technology, and communicating that with the public. We are not alone. We have worked alongside many, many intelligent and talented women and men who have been mentors and who have helped foster our professional development.
We are proud that the telescope we work for, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, has had women in key roles throughout the decades-long history of the project. When Chandra was launched into orbit by the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999, Eileen Collins was the commander of the Shuttle, the first woman to hold that position; and Cady Coleman was the astronaut and mission specialist who released Chandra into space from the payload bay. Women have held many of the senior scientist positions within the Chandra project since it was first conceived in the ’70s. Chandra now has the first female director, Dr. Belinda Wilkes, for a NASA facility of its size and scope. In our group, women aren’t an anomaly. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that where there are women that have long been involved with a project, other women will follow—and stay.
That’s not to say either of us have altogether escaped negative experiences. Over the years, we have both had inappropriate comments directed at us, noticed improper looks, and had moments of being made uncomfortable in work-related settings. That said, we know that we can be considered fortunate in many regards, not least because our careers have not been derailed by sexist or biased attitudes in STEM fields.
We are committed to doing whatever we can to help women and girls around the world feel like they belong in STEM fields, in whatever capacity they choose to participate. Whether it’s direct mentoring, writing about social issues, supporting efforts on social networks, creating public projects, or simply being visible as writers and communicators, we hope to help dismantle the perception that only white, able-bodied males are meant to be involved in STEM fields.
One empowering outcome of all the negative stories that emerged this past year is the awareness that there are many people—men and women—who feel as we do. There are tireless advocates to celebrate—advocates who battle injustices not only on behalf of women, but for people of a range of abilities, people of color, and other groups that have too long been seen as outside the mainstream of STEM.
With the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we have an opportunity to shine a light on all that has been accomplished so far, and also recognize how much more needs to get done. Wherever we come from, we need to move forward. Together.
Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke are award-winning directors, producers, and authors who have spent their careers in science and technology. Arcand is the visualization lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, specializing in image and meaning research, and data representation. She lives near Providence, R.I. Watzke is the press officer for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, specializing in communicating astronomy with the public. She lives in Seattle, Wash. They are co-authors of, most recently, Light: The Visible Spectrum and Beyond, as well as Your Ticket to the Universe and dozens of articles in print and online.