Opening Doors: Women in Science

“If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, dosage we’ve got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, search and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

First Lady Michelle Obama, September 26, 2011

Female student with professor in science labCollege degrees and jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are all the rage right now. The jobs aren’t just exciting; they’re growing as well:

  • STEM grads have a lower unemployment rate than non-STEM grads (see She Geeks infographic)
  • The growth in STEM jobs in the past 10 years was three times greater than that of non-STEM jobs (see Edutopia infographic)
  • And that growth isn’t stopping: STEM jobs are projected to grow 17 percent from 2008-2018; non-STEM jobs are only projected to grow 9.8 percent
  • The payoff for STEM jobs is greater: STEM majors who go on to work in STEM jobs earn 20 percent more than non-STEM majors in non-STEM jobs (read report)

But another hot topic is gender inequality in the workplace, and the story is no different in STEM fields. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, while women make up almost half of the workforce in the United States, they have less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, despite the fact that more college-educated women have joined the workforce. However, women with STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs, and gap between compensation for men and women in STEM fields is less than in other areas.

With all the potential that is available to women in STEM, why aren’t there as many women pursuing STEM careers? In “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap To Innovation,” gender stereotyping and a lack of female role models are cited as a couple of the reasons for the discrepancy.

At Notre Dame de Namur University, there’s no shortage of female role models within our Department of Natural Sciences. We caught up with Natural Sciences faculty Melissa McAlexander, Ph.D., and Rachel Shellabarger, MS, to get their perspective on women in science.

Why did you pursue science?

MM: I was the kid who always loved science – it seemed like fun. My high school biology teacher had a particularly strong influence on me. She really encouraged me, and probably helped me understand for the first time that I could pursue science as a career.

RS: I think the case for myself and a lot of my colleagues was that we found topics we liked and stuck with them because we were passionate about them. As a more general trend, however, I think the scientific process is a way of thinking that works in all realms of life, and perhaps those of us that end up in scientific fields really appreciate that process.

Why is it important for women to work in science?

RS: It’s important for people to go into fields they are interested in and passionate about, regardless of their background/demographic. Science thrives on a range of diverse opinions, and we want the scientific field to be representative of our population as a whole. As with many other fields, there has been a history of excluding women (and other groups) from various parts of science, so we of course want to move toward a future where no group is excluded from a field because of demographics.

MM: In any field, having women as part of the team increases the diversity of ideas and experiences at the table. The process of science benefits when different perspectives are represented in the approaches we take. No gender or ethnicity (or any other way of classifying people) does science “better” than another. But the more we engage the whole of the population in science, the better science gets.

What advice would you give to a student who wants to pursue science?

RS: A career in science requires lots of hard work to understand course material, research protocols/findings, and the broader impact of science on society. Every individual’s background prepares them for scientific inquiry in different ways, and it’s important to understand the skills you bring with you, as well as the skills you need to work to improve.

MM: Go for it, if it is a fit with your interests, skills, and passion. You need to love the process of doing science, of gaining new understandings about the world, and/or of making something beneficial to society. There’s loads of fascinating questions being asked in laboratories in all fields these days – find an area you’re passionate for learning about, and dive in deep. Be ready to be challenged – to try something no one has ever done before, to learn new techniques, and to repeat something challenging until you perfect it.

Science: Where Can You Go and How Do You Get There?

When it comes to science-related job opportunities, the sky’s the limit. There are a number of jobs in clinical or research laboratories that do not necessarily require graduate degrees. Scientists in these positions are trying to answer many different questions that can have a direct impact on our lives. But not all scientists work in the lab — many companies are looking for knowledgeable employees to help with product development or provide technical customer service. These opportunities are available in a variety of fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, health care and environmental science.

You may find working in science education may be more your speed. From university professor to grade school teacher to after-school science programs and museum education programs, there are many ways you can help pass on knowledge to the next generation of inquiring minds. Melissa McAlexander worked at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose before coming to Notre Dame de Namur University. “It was a fabulous way of thinking about how to engage the public with science,” says McAlexander. “And man, was it fun!”

There are a number of scholarships available for women interested in studying science in college; here are a couple of web resources to get you started on your search:

Notre Dame de Namur University offers undergraduate degrees within the natural sciences — biochemistry, biology and kinesiology — as well as minors in biology, biochemistry, chemistry and environmental justice. A Bachelor of Science from NDNU will prepare you for the many exciting opportunities in science.

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