I Am A Scientist: Changing How We See Women In Science

Editor’s Note: The following essay is by Stephanie Fine Sasse, founder of The Plenary, Co., a 501(c)3 nonprofit committed to making social and environmental issues more accessible through science, art, and play.

A few years ago, I sat across from twelve dynamic, accomplished, and inspiring women. They were artists, dancers, singers, musicians, gamers, athletes, activists, and moms. 

I am a scientist
Stephanie Fine Sasse, Founder of The Plenary Co. (Image Credit: Eric Shilling)

And of course, they were scientists.

I watched their eyes light up as they spoke about the curiosities and purpose behind their work. And I watched their eyes narrow as they reflected on the challenges that they faced. Many of them spoke about the important roles of failure, creativity, and collaboration in the sciences; concepts that are too often missing from the job description. And others shared their favorite parts of their work: discovery, travel, teamwork, writing, or mentoring students.

As I listened to their stories, I thought about my own. I wondered what might have happened if someone had told my ten-year-old self that this is what it could mean to be a scientist.

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee in a family that indulged my incessant questioning and would have supported any path I chose. Even so, my early fascination with rocks, dinosaurs, and galaxies began to wane as my science classes became less about exploration and more about lifeless memorization. I was a strong student, yet I can’t remember a time when a teacher talked to me about a career in the sciences. Instead, I was encouraged to pursue the arts or humanities. And since I’d never seen scientists that looked or talked or acted like me on TV or in my textbooks, I didn’t put up a fight as a future in science fell from my view.  

Thanks to a few chance encounters with the right role models in my early twenties, that changed. I ended up spending the better part of a decade studying neuroscience and psychology at Harvard University. It wasn’t lost on me that luck and privilege brought me back, and those aren’t forces that most kids can count on.

In graduate school, I hosted educational workshops for local students to tour the lab, learn about the brain, and get a little hands-on experience in science. At the end of these sessions, students would consistently come up to me with the same type of comments:

“You don’t look like a scientist.” 

“I could never do that.”

“I’m not smart/nerdy/genius enough.”

It likely isn’t surprising that most of the kids who made comments like this were young girls, and in particular, young girls of color. Kids are perceptive, and they’re constantly absorbing the messages that society sends them. If we want the sciences to reflect the diversity of experiences and perspectives represented in the US — and we should — then it’s our responsibility to send messages that are inclusive, affirming, and inspiring.

Science and technology are increasingly influential forces in our society, which means that those with the skills and positions to steer those forces hold substantial power. As such, we have a collective responsibility to ensure that these positions are both psychologically and financially accessible to everyone. 

Studies have shown that sexism and racism remain prevalent throughout STEM pipelines. Researchers have found that women are perceived as less qualified than men even when matched on credentials, and reports show that women are promoted, cited, and funded less often than men in many fields. These disparities are even more significant for women of color, with one recent study finding that nearly half of the Black and Latina women interviewed — many of whom hold senior positions in science — have been assumed to be janitorial or administrative staff at their workplace. Yet, it isn’t only a matter of equity or representation. There is also ample evidence that diversity of thought is good for the pursuit, precision, and impact of science, too.

The biases that block progress are both a reflection and driver of the status quo. While the issue is complex and will require collaborative, comprehensive efforts to combat, we know one thing for sure: the stories of all of the incredible, multifaceted people who make meaningful contributions to the sciences are not told nearly or loudly enough. 

That’s why we created the “I Am A Scientist” program. Our priority is to break barriers and stereotypes in STEM by sharing the stories and science of real world researchers (including those twelve impressive women) with classrooms and communities. Our team has collaborated with educators and advocates to create 22 “scientist-of-the-month” toolkits that humanize the people behind the science, demystify career pathways, introduce diverse fields of study, and provide a gateway to a broad library of complementary resources.

“I Am A Scientist” featured scientist Marinna Madrid. (Image Credit: I Am A Scientist)

To achieve our goal of reaching 10,000 classrooms, libraries, and community centers, we need your help.

  • Become a Sponsor. You or a group that you’re part of can sponsor a school district, a region, or even a state, which ensures that the physical components of the program are provided for free to those educators and their students. Get in touch here.
  • Help us Clear the List. We have a growing list of hundreds of teachers and librarians who have requested donated kits. Your support allows us to make sure that no educator is unable to access these resources due to a lack of funds. Make a donation here.
  • Become a Member. “I Am A Scientist” is a program of The Plenary, Co., a 501(c)3 nonprofit committed to making social and environmental issues more accessible through science, art, and play. By becoming a member, you’re supporting our efforts to fight back against misinformation, disengagement, and inaccessible knowledge. You can sign up here.

There were many moving themes in our interviews with the featured scientists, but perhaps the most telling was the importance of people on their path to success in science: people who inspired them, mentored them, challenged them, believed in them, or supported them. 

If we want the future to be as equitable and innovative as possible, then it’s up to us to make sure that every student has a chance to see themselves in science.

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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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