Breaking Barriers: Taking STEM by Storm
We must take action to remove the hurdles still facing women in science
Jessica Allerton | | 6 min read | Discussion
In a recent article, Patrice Jimerson, Associate Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Agilent Technologies, shared her views about the missing support for women in the workplace. Following this, Jimerson reached out to several female colleagues – Fiona Regan, Anne Bendt, Arya Vijayanandan, Ronda Greaves, and Angela Calderón – to discuss what steps can be taken to tackle the issues facing women in STEM.
What can we do to support women in the workplace?
Patrice Jimerson: Mentorship, sponsorship, and networking builds a support system for women in the workplace. Senior leaders should use their skills and influence to give less experienced colleagues more opportunities to advance in their careers. This support helps when navigating the politics and unwritten rules of STEM roles, while providing a metaphorical toolkit to thrive in the workplace.
Fiona Regan: I had a wonderful teacher in secondary school who instilled in me a real interest in environmental topics. Working with colleagues who mentored me in my early career led to great opportunities. I now try to do the same for junior colleagues in my department or collaborators. We need more women to provide mentorship.
Anne Bendt: Agreed – I wish I’d sought out mentors and sponsors much earlier and that I was more comfortable asking for advice when I was starting out in my career. Mentors can help mentees identify what they are really good at; an outside source is often better at seeing your potential and pointing it out. Sponsors can be great advocates and open doors for talented junior scientists.
Are flexible working opportunities a viable option?
Vijayanandan: To be an active researcher, you must spend as much time as possible keeping up with the latest developments in your field; as a mother, you don't have a lot of free time to be productive to advance in your career. It can be a difficult balance to strike, but the option to work from home can help. It's also important for employers to support women that chose to take a career break for personal reasons.
Greaves: Arya makes a good point; when I started having children, there were many challenges I faced as a woman going back into the workplace. I was lucky enough to work somewhere with a newly formed staff crèche onsite for support with childcare, but I still faced obstacles from management regarding flexibility. Nowadays, in my current company, there is a much better balance. In my leadership role, I make an effort to proactively support flexible working arrangements for mothers with young families on my team, so they don’t face similar issues.
Jimserson: Having the autonomy to create flexible schedules prevents us from sacrificing our home lives for our careers. In the wake of the pandemic, hybrid working patterns have made it easier for people with young families, care responsibilities, or disabilities to perform at their best. Managers must now proactively promote and support flexible work patterns to prioritize the retention of valuable female staff.
Could more funding be directed to support women?
Calderón: There is a general lack of federal funding for the enhancement of women in natural products chemistry. For the industry to encourage more women to pursue a career in STEM, research fellowships and grants must be provided to female undergraduates, graduates, postdocs, and faculty.
Jimerson: There are statistics that prove Angela’s point: in the last five years, pay disparities in the science industry have outpaced the national average for all other industries. Women are also less likely to receive funding than their male counterparts. It’s an embarrassing and vicious cycle – if fewer women are entering STEM fields, fewer women will be applying for funding. This reinforces the unconscious bias, making it harder for women to enter the industry. By creating more funding opportunities for women, we can end this cycle and break the glass ceiling.
Vijayanandan: In the research community, we need grants and fellowships that prioritize women, particularly those who have had career breaks. For example, a project I’m currently working on has been funded by Science and Technology India, which provides different funding channels for research and mobility – all ear-marked for female researchers.
Regan: It’s true that women who take time off work to start a family may find it hard to start back on the funding ladder. Agencies must start offering seed initiatives, teaching buy-out grants or incentives to enable women to publish work or appoint graduate students. The expectation of winning large-scale grants is sometimes overwhelming and therefore smaller opportunities can have a hugely positive impact.
What’s the wider impact of seeing women in leadership roles?
Bendt: By showcasing the roles and opportunities available, women are encouraged to pursue STEM careers. In my own experience, I gained confidence by connecting with women in senior STEM roles. Companies with senior female leaders are on the right track to inspire women.
Calderón: It’s very sad that I was the only woman in my department for a number of years. Although this has now changed, none of my female colleagues in the department have leadership positions. More awareness of the importance of female leadership would help address this disparity.
Jimerson: I completely agree. If women don’t have senior and executive leaders in their professional networks, they lose the important advantages of mentorship, sponsorship, and career development opportunities. Our industry is failing women. The upper reaches of the management tree continue to be dominated by men. In January 2023, only 8.2 percent of CEO positions at Standard and Poor (S&P) 500 companies were held by women (1). With such a significant skew, it’s no wonder leaders aren’t held accountable for a lack of diversity.
Having more women in STEM leadership positions not only paves the way for future female leaders, but also cultivates a supportive and empowering environment for women who already work in these industries.
The hard work and dedication of women across generations should be celebrated and honored in science. We should be driving change by taking active steps to embed diversity and inclusion into our corporate culture. Diversity doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. It’s reflected in our leaders, our partners, and our science.
As we look into the future of STEM industries, we must work hard to create an environment that actively values and supports all dimensions of identity. By providing leaders with the tools and resources to hire and retain top talent, we can empower women to seek out STEM careers.
Fiona Regan is a Professor in Chemistry, School of Chemical Sciences, Dublin City University and Director of DCU Water Institute.
Anne Bendt is Principal Investigator at the National University of Singapore.
Arya Vijayanandan is Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India.
Ronda Greaves is Deputy Head of Biochemical Genetics and Victorian Clinical Genetics Services at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia.
Angela Calderón is Associate Professor at Auburn University, Alabama, USA.
- Catalyst, “Women CEOs of the S&P 500 (List)” (2023). Available at: https://bit.ly/2YqOi4Y