Author Archives: Heidi

Why have women entered some STEM fields more than others? A discussion with Professor Sapna Cheryan

Yesterday, WCS and Women in Genome Sciences hosted a discussion with Professor Sapna Cheryan of the UW Department of Psychology. This event left me with a lot to think about, and was definitely worth the trek over to Foege Hall!

We talk a lot about underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, but this is a broad and complicated topic. Looking at the demographics of students taking AP exams and getting undergraduate degrees in different STEM disciplines, some fields (biology, chemistry, and math) are now close to 50% female at this level, while others (physics, computer science, engineering) have a much more significant disparity. By looking at differences among these fields, Professor Cheryan hopes to untangle and understand different causes of women’s underrepresentation in STEM. She emphasized that she investigates different aspects of STEM fields rather than focusing on qualities of the women who enter or leave these fields, which I thought was an important and beneficial distinction to make.

Professor Cheryan and her group just finished a large-scale review of studies on gender and STEM, focusing on the STEM participation of students in the US and seeking to find which factors have the biggest impact. They considered a variety of individual (early hands-on experience, self-efficacy, math performance) and societal (stereotypes of the field, negative stereotypes of women, presence of female role models, discrimination) factors that have been cited for the lack of women in these fields. Their conclusions were that the difference in demographics between bio/chem/math and physics/engineering/computer science is primarily due to two factors: the gender imbalance in early hands-on experience (toys, projects, classes, media), and women’s perception of the field or how they relate to it.

Before this review, Professor Cheryan’s research has mostly focused on women in computer science. In one study, non-CS-major undergraduates were brought to Stanford’s computer science building and given a questionnaire on their interest in the subject. Some of the students were in a room containing several stereotypically CS-related items (Star Trek poster, sci-fi books, lots of Coke cans) while others were in a more generically decorated room. While male students demonstrated the same level of interest in computer science regardless of the room decor, female students were substantially less interested when they were in the stereotypical computer science room. Emphasizing the stereotypes influenced their perception of the field, which affected their interest (this reminded me of our discussion of Whistling Vivaldi in last summer’s book club – stereotypes can be really powerful!).

There are a variety of stereotypes related to computer science that can turn off women’s interest in the field. The stereotypical programmer is socially awkward, stays up all night coding and drinking energy drinks, and is into video games and Star Trek. Success in computer science is perceived to be related to innate genius or brilliance, rather than hard work (a recent Science paper explored this effect among different fields). And it’s not seen as a people-oriented area – computer scientists don’t work with people, and their work isn’t focused on helping society. (I realized that this last point played a role in my decision not to major in computer science. It was challenging and interesting, but I wanted to make an impact on the world with renewable energy or biomedical science.) However, computer science stereotypes can vary a lot across cultures – in some countries, typing code on a computer is seen as a logical extension of being a secretary, a traditionally female job; these countries are generally much closer to gender parity in computer science.

Fortunately, there are many other ways to counter these stereotypes and make STEM fields more welcoming. A twelve-year-old girl recently surveyed a set of popular apps and found that most of them offered male characters as the default or only option. This creates the impression that these games (and the industry that creates them) are not for girls, but it would be easy for developers to offer more female characters in games. At the undergraduate level, some colleges and universities are redesigning their computer science curricula (Harvey Mudd is the most prominent example) and creating more open-ended or interdisciplinary majors to emphasize the different applications of computer science, encouraging students to move beyond their existing perception of the topic.

In our discussion of ways to encourage girls to get into computer science, Professor Cheryan also pointed out how some of these methods tend to enforce the same stereotypes that prevent many girls from developing an interest in the field. Many people and programs emphasize that girls can be nerds too (Microsoft runs camps for girls where they learn about CS in relation to sci-fi movies and video games) or that you can be a nerd while still being feminine (computer engineer Barbie has pink glasses, a binary t-shirt, and a pink laptop). But maybe we’d be better off teaching girls that not all computer scientists are nerds. This reminded me of the Seattle Expanding Your Horizons conference, where some of us told our audience of middle-school girls that you don’t have to be a nerd to do science, while others wanted to emphasize that being a nerd is awesome and nothing to be ashamed of. When trying to make STEM fields more diverse, we need to think not only in terms of gender and demographics but also in terms of personalities, interests, and perspectives. This is definitely something I’ll try to be aware of in the future when doing outreach and talking to the public.

WCS Q&A with Jill Cornell Tarter

As part of her visit to campus for the Danz lecture last week, Jill Cornell Tarter spent some time answering questions and discussing science and her experiences with WCS members. Here are a few of the interesting and thought-provoking things we learned about Dr. Tarter and SETI:

Dr. Tarter’s favorite color is blue, her hobbies include flying small planes and samba dancing, and her favorite element on the periodic table is silver. If she could visit any other planet (without concern for environmental or technological restrictions), she would visit Mars to look for signs of life in its subsurface aquifers. Her second-favorite movie is Awakenings, which tells the story of Oliver Sacks and his work with a drug that could awaken catatonic patients. She is currently reading the book What If? by Randall Munroe, creator of the xkcd webcomic.

While she’s had an accomplished career and is very well-respected in her field, Dr. Tarter faced a lot of challenges during her undergraduate and graduate education. She was the only woman in her class of 300 engineering majors at Cornell. Since the women’s dorms were locked from 10 pm to 6 am, she had to do all of her problem sets alone while her classmates were working together in the men’s dorms. She received a generous scholarship from Procter & Gamble, but when she got married, her scholarship was cancelled, as they assumed she would leave college to start a family. Instead, she was already planning to go to graduate school for astronomy (the administration at Cornell advocated for her, and she got her scholarship back). When she started graduate school, someone told her and the other two women in her class that they were “lucky” to be there because all the smart men had been drafted for Vietnam. However, she persisted and was able tok

Dr. Tarter spoke very highly of the movie Contact, whose main character was based on her. Carl Sagan, who was on the board of SETI and knew a lot about its research, wrote the original film treatment as well as the novel (published before the film was actually made). The most significant mistake in the film is when Ellie Arroway says “You know, there are four hundred billion stars out there, just in our galaxy alone. If only one out of a million of those had planets, and just of out of a million of those had life, and just one out of a million of those had intelligent life; there would be literally millions of civilizations out there.” – the math just doesn’t work out. Other than that, the movie was very realistic in its portrayal of science and SETI. Jodie Foster, who played the protagonist and worked closely with Dr. Tarter to get her character right, said that her goal wasn’t to teach the audience about science, but to show them that scientists are real people.

I also learned a lot about the way SETI does science. Its goal is not specifically to find extraterrestrial intelligence, but to answer the question of whether or not it exists. Dr. Tarter was careful to make this distinction, refusing to make assumptions about possible alien life and emphasizing that she doesn’t know the answers to many related questions. SETI scientists have to be very rigorous when it comes to investigating any signal. They must consider all potential explanations, including the possibility of a hoax conducted by someone trying to fool them. Dr. Tarter is also very aware of the potential implications of her work, and what finding a signal would mean for human civilization.

It was inspiring to be able to spend some time talking to Dr. Tarter about her life and work, in contrast with the big-picture, meaning-of-life (but also inspirational) tone of her public lecture.

First Annual WCS Lecture, featuring Maria Klawe, Thursday 12/4 at 5:30 in BAG 154

Women in Chemical Sciences will be holding its first annual lecture this Thursday, December 4 (tomorrow!) from 5:30-6:30 pm in BAG 154. This will be the first in an annual series that goes beyond chemistry at UW to highlight inspirational women in STEM and their achievements. For our inaugural lecture of this series, we are excited to be hosting Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College and board member of Microsoft. Maria is an accomplished computer scientist and advocate for women in STEM. She will be sharing her story as well as thoughts on the world today.

We hope to see you tomorrow!

Social Justice in Action: Small Steps Leading to Change

Yesterday, WCS hosted a workshop entitled “Social Justice in Action: Small Steps Leading to Change” and led by Dr. Caprice Hollins of Cultures Connecting. Dr. Hollins is a very engaging speaker, and she made a point of introducing herself to everyone in the room and remembering all of our names. She began by telling us about her family and background, helping to set a context for our discussion and providing frequent examples of how she recognizes and applies these ideas in her own life.

One topic we discussed was how developing self-awareness can be a starting point for improving your interactions with people from other cultures and groups. If I start by considering my own story and motivations, I can better understand how I react to other people, interpret situations, and make assumptions. I can also acknowledge the contexts where I have privilege as a member of a dominant culture, and admit when I have biases about people of other cultures. Although most people want to believe that they’re fair and unbiased, we’re still all susceptible to unconscious bias (remember the study where male and female professors rated male applicants more highly than female ones?). And I can’t do anything about my own biases if I don’t admit that they exist.

Dr. Hollins also mentioned the importance of admitting how your assumptions about others affect your interactions with them. As an example, she told us about a time when she approached someone and realized he was in a wheelchair; she felt self-conscious and tried to act like she hadn’t noticed, which just made the conversation awkward. Trying to ignore others’ differences (in race, ability, or any other area) can make them feel like their experiences are invalid. These differences can have a huge impact on someone’s life, and acknowledging that is necessary for engaging with them – even if it also forces you to acknowledge your assumptions, which makes you uncomfortable.

Another point we discussed was the difference between equality and equity. While equality is giving everyone the same resources or treating everyone the same, equity is leveling the playing field and helping everyone have a positive outcome. Dr. Hollins used this image to sum up the difference:

The difference between equality and equity (source unknown)

Finally, someone asked for advice on what to do when you’re on the other side of the conversation – when you feel offended or discriminated against. Dr. Hollins outlined two common types of responses, which many of us could identify with: predatory listening (finding points to argue and being confrontational) and avoidance (waiting and venting to someone else rather than addressing the problem directly – I definitely do this one). She then advised us to get good at asking questions. It can be challenging to find real, curious, non-snarky questions that actually open up dialogue and engagement, but it is a worthwhile strategy to practice. Instead of treating someone as an enemy, I can help them learn, grow, and change.

Overall, Dr. Hollins led a really interesting discussion and gave us all a lot to think about. I’ll definitely be more aware of my own biases and their effects. on myself and on others, from now on.

Meeting recap 11/6/2014

Thanks to everyone who attended yesterday’s member meeting! We have two major events coming up: the workshop “Social Justice in Action: Small Steps Leading to Change” with Caprice Hollins of Cultures Connecting (Tuesday, November 18th from 12 to 1:30 in CHB 102) and our inaugural WCS-UW lecture featuring Maria Klawe, an awesome computer scientist and the president of Harvey Mudd College (Thursday, December 4th in the evening).

A few more quick notes and contacts:

  • Contact Stephanie ( to get involved with planning the Puget Sound Women Chemists’ Retreat.
  • Contact Rae ( if you’re interested in being interviewed by some design students for a class project on women in STEM.
  • Contact Scott ( if you want to help plan the logistics of Maria Klawe’s visit, including dinner and advertising.
  • Add your ideas for outreach activities for an elementary school science fair to this Google doc.
  • Add your contacts and ideas for other UW student groups and possible collaborations to this Google doc.

Keep reading for more details about all of these topics, and a few others:

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