It’s All About STEM Women: Arianne Hunter and the Privilege of Dreams

“Women can be successful in science.” This is the core message from Arianne Hunter, a chemist in Atlanta. “Our brains can retain, analyze and distribute knowledge just like our male counterparts [so] our ideas and dialogue should be met with the same respect,” she says. 

Arianne Hunter discusses ways to increase opportunities for women and girls in STEM. (credit: Arianne Hunter)

Hunter is a first-generation college student who was a member of the Division I Women’s Basketball Team at Dartmouth College, the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of Oklahoma, and the founder of “We Do Science Too!” — a nonprofit serving girls who have less access to STEM experiences. She is a published and awarded scientist and is currently pursuing postdoctoral training in Forensic Chemistry at the Defense Forensic Science Center.

Hunter’s research interests and foci range from developing synthetic metal to efficiently constructing pharmaceutical drug molecules in the hope of making them more affordable. Hunter was a CAS Future Leader in 2019 — an award and program from a branch of the American Chemical Society that gives early-career scientists leadership training and networking opportunities. 

Women in STEM

Women in the U.S. make up about 47% of the workforce. Within life sciences and math jobs, as of 2016, women filled a similar percentage of positions (47% and 46%, respectively), Pew Research Center reports. But, women are still underrepresented in engineering (14%), computer (25%) and physical sciences (39%). People who are Black or Hispanic are shown to be significantly underrepresented in most of the STEM job “clusters,” or categories, that Pew analyzed.

Of all science and engineering (S&E) degrees in 2016, women earned about half of bachelor’s, 44% of master’s and 41% of doctorates, according to the National Science Foundation, which states these percentages are “about the same as in 2006.” When we consider underrepresented minority students in 2016, the percentages are, again, low: they received 22% of all S&E bachelor degrees and 9% of doctorates. Their share of master’s degrees increased between 1996 and 2016 then declined over the past few years.

How to Support Women in STEM

Hunter has noticed that many women who study STEM fields fail to go on to become STEM professors. She previously said, “I believe this is due to the inconducive nature of the pipeline into academia with family life in America.” She thinks both the salaries and schedules of professors can constitute barriers for women. She tells Philanthropy Women, “[The] work culture associated with being a STEM professor isn’t that attractive for many women in science… professors [tell] us how much we have to work outside of a [40] hour week in order to achieve success.” Hunter thinks some women “are more focused on having a healthy work and life balance and [so] aren’t willing to risk entering into a professorship.” 

Hunter has several ideas on how to address this situation. First, she would like to see U.S. student loan debt eliminated. She thinks academia should actively recruit women and people of color out of industry and government jobs. She also says academia should pay professors more in order to make these careers more attractive and practical. “[When] women of color who, more often than not, have financial baggage that they have to take care of, have the choice between journeying through the traditional academic path or getting a job in government or industry, pay must be considered.”

While Hunter isn’t a professor herself — she hopes to be one in the future — she can “speak from the general perspective [of a] woman in academia; as a graduate-level researcher.” She says, “Academia can support more women scientists, no matter what level, by eliminating boys clubs. Include women in conversations and respect our opinions. Also, stop labeling hardworking women as stern and unapproachable, and stop labeling helpful women as motherly. Both of these generalizations are hurtful to women in all work settings.”

Her comments about unsupportive workplace cultures for women in STEM are not unusual — a 2014 study found women in science, engineering and technology jobs to be 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within the year, with many citing various forms of gender bias as the reason. 

Hunter says her experience with the CAS Future Leaders program is evidence that STEM fields can support women. “[The] most amazing thing about this program [was] the fact that women were given an equal voice in every activity that we participated in.” 

For funders who want to help girls and women in STEM fields, Hunter suggests supporting the many STEM-outreach initiatives housed at universities as well as those in “cities across the United States that are doing amazing work.” For more on supporting women in stem, see our ongoing coverage of STEM funding

The Privilege of Dreams

Hunter’s path within the field of chemistry is not typical for a Black woman. She started We Do Science Too! to “identify girls that were similar to me growing up in the greater Oklahoma City area… girls that have inquisitive minds and are interested in science but don’t have access to the resources to build that interest.” Hunter has provided free tutoring services and STEM activities for girls in the community, including in cooperation with Oklahoma University and GirlTech. She recently moved to Atlanta and “is looking to transition” her efforts to this area. 

Hunter learned from the girls she worked with that “dreaming is a privilege.” She says, “Many of these girls didn’t have the privilege of dreaming to be a doctor, a scientist or an engineer because they had never been exposed to individuals in these careers. I would always hear in my career as an athlete that you cannot be what you cannot see, and this is [also] true when it comes to the professional trajectories of our lives.”

“The support of people of color in STEM fields will only come about once the individuals leading the universities, industries, agencies and institutions understand that diversity in every room is necessary,” Hunter says. “Our society faces a diverse range of scientific problems, and they will only be solved when a diverse set of individuals are contributing to the solutions.” 

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Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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