By Jackie Liu
It’s 2019 and women still remain underrepresented in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce. Why is this still a thing? And what can we do?
Earlier this month, I participated in a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, co-hosted by the Salk Institute, SAID in Stem, SANDSWA, and 500 Women Scientists SD, and underwritten by the Salk Office of Equity and Inclusion. The purpose of the event was to address the continued gender disparity in STEM by disrupting the status quo and bringing women into the spotlight.
We spent the morning learning how to create and edit Wikipedia biographies for notable women scientists. By increasing the number of female biographies, we would increase the number of visible female role models for young girls to look up to. It’s a chain reaction that I was glad to be a part of.
Mackenzie Lemieux, research technician at the Salk Institute, head of SAID in STEM and event co-organizer, said she was pleasantly shocked by the huge turnout. To give an idea of just how many people participated in the event, the status quo wasn’t the only thing we disrupted. There were so many writers and editors at the event, the Wi-Fi network simply couldn’t handle our enthusiasm.
To give the internet a chance to catch up, we left our computers behind and filed into the auditorium to listen to keynote speaker, Pamela Cosman, PhD. Cosman is a professor in the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. Although her research focuses on data compression and image/video processing, she also studies gender disparity in STEM.
“I was the only female in the department for almost a decade,” she said. The lack of female representation in engineering served as a driving force behind the sociology portion of her work.
During her talk, she explained a disturbing trend she and her team are finding. She analyzed over a hundred videos of engineering department job talks — presentations that candidates provide as part of the interview process for faculty positions. She found that the use of irrelevant and inappropriate information to introduce a speaker happens more often to women than men. In one example, she used a personal anecdote of a speaker introducing her by saying she’s the only scientist who has a swimsuit photo in a magazine. At the same time, an introducer is more likely to mention the candidate’s awards if the speaker is a man. Sadly, these aren’t the only trends she discovered.
Her video analysis also revealed that women were interrupted more often during their talks. In fact, she said the interruptions occurred so often that female candidates had significantly less time to finish their presentations. This loss of time caused candidates to deliver a weaker conclusion, which could potentially snowball into a less-than-stellar impressions that negatively affect consideration for the faculty position. Dr. Cosman uses her findings to help make policy recommendations to help diversify the faculty pool in engineering departments.
After Dr. Cosman’s talk, we eagerly returned to our computers to get cracking at the Wikipedia editing. Anila Madiraju, PhD, research associate at the Salk Institute, provided a brief tutorial on how to create and edit biographies. Then the fun began.
Several participants chose to edit existing biographies by adding new information to profiles, providing fact checking, or correcting grammatical errors. This improved the completeness of the existing female biographies. Others chose to create profiles that hadn’t made it to Wikipedia yet.
Tiffany Fox, vice president of SANDSWA, created a biography for Andromache “Mary” Papanicolaou, a woman who made a shocking and selfless contribution to the development of the Pap test. I’ll let you read more about her biography once it gets published on Wikipedia. As for me, I created a new page for Susan Abamyr, PhD, a developmental biologist at the Stowers Institute. She identified key genes involved in muscle fate and patterning — why a muscle becomes a hamstring versus a bicep. Sadly, she passed away in July, but her contribution to science will be remembered forever.
As a participant in the Edit-A-Thon, I felt empowered and proud to be improving gender equity in STEM. Although we still have a long way to go, events like this help give a voice to women. If you’re interested in contributing, you can start by creating an account on Wikipedia. Not sure who to write about? Try perusing this list of women in STEM, created by the event sponsors.