Sharing my experience as a woman in STEM: Pass it on

February 17, 2015 Laura Guertin

Last week, we kicked off a dialogue leading up to International Women's Day focusing on how far women have come and what progress remains.  In the post below, originally published in Women In Higher Education, Laura Guertin shares her perspective on the challenges encountered by women in STEM.

Source: Chris Fertnig/Thinkstock
Source: Chris Fertnig/Thinkstock

Each year, one of my faculty colleagues invites me to her Psychology of Gender class to talk about being a female geologist (a field where women are underrepresented) and what it is like in general for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

I have been a guest speaker in this class for several years and always update the statistics and current news stories I discuss. When I visited the class in 2014, my colleague pulled me aside and said, “You have such powerful examples every year — you should pull these together and write a paper!” Her comment took me by surprise. Did I really have that many examples of the challenges of women in STEM?

Starting with me

I always begin the class visit with my own story of faculty telling me when I was a student that I was never going to succeed as a geologist. The students are always shocked when I share that one of my undergraduate professors, right before I graduated, told me that I was not going to succeed in graduate school, that I was going to “drop out, get married and have kids, and not necessarily in that order.”

Yes, graduate school was incredibly hard work, having to prove myself to the “good old boy network” that exists in my discipline, yet I succeeded in earning my PhD in marine geology and geophysics.

The stories of others

But earning the degree does not mean the challenges ended for myself or for other women with a PhD in a STEM field. Therefore, I share stories about women in STEM that have gained national attention.

When I first started visiting the class, I would talk about a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where it was revealed in 1994 that, in comparison to their male colleagues, female faculty in STEM had less than half the office/laboratory space, received a lower salary and had never served as department heads.

In recent years, I have dropped the MIT example and older stories of pay and space inequities in favor of more recent case studies of the challenges, images and perceptions of women in STEM.

For example, in 2013, the European Commission released a one-minute video titled “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” The video has a dance music track with women wearing short skirts and stiletto heels, and focuses on images of makeup.

There was such a negative outcry toward this campaign by both men and women in STEM that the video was quickly taken down (but can still be viewed here ). Interestingly, the original video ultimately achieved its initial intent of generating a wider conversation about women in science.

Another example is from October 2013, when Dr. Danielle Lee, a biologist and “The Urban Scientist” blogger at Scientific American, received an email inquiry from an editor at Biology Online asking her to contribute to their blogging site. Dr. Lee asked several follow-up questions, including the question of whether there was financial compensation for contributions.

Upon learning the responses to her questions, she emailed back: “Thank you very much for your reply. But I will have to decline your offer. Have a great day.” The editor from Biology Online responded, “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

The following month, Emily Graslie, host of the YouTube video series “The Brain Scoop” for The Field Museum of Chicago, posted a video titled “Where my ladies at?”. She speaks about the lack of female-led STEM YouTube channels and the inappropriate comments she receives just for sharing science online. Already in 2015, Graslie has shared that she is continuing to be harassed and stalked, just for being in the spotlight as a science communicator.

Hot off the presses

I already have a new story to add when I visit the class this year, the November 2014 shirt controversy. When the Rosetta space probe’s Philae lander became the first spacecraft to touch down on a comet, European Space Agency project scientist Dr. Matthew Taylor was interviewed by the international press. His comments were not at issue; it was his attire that day.

For such a significant scientific accomplishment that the world was watching, in a field where women are underrepresented, his wardrobe choice for the day was a shirt depicting scantily clad cartoon women with firearms.

End on a high note

I end my class presentation by showcasing some of the great organizations out there to support women in my discipline, such as the Association for Women Geoscientists and the Earth Science Women’s Network. But I do worry about the take-home message the psychology majors are receiving.

After hearing my stories, are the students thinking that science is unwelcoming to females? That science is insensitive, even an uncomfortable field to women at times? How much should I be open and honest, and how much should I filter?

I make sure I tell the students I love being a geologist, and my passion for fieldwork and the outdoors carries me through any road bumps I may face. But with new stories each year that keep me asking, “How can this still be happening?” what is the balance (and should there be a balance in what I present) on the joys of being a female in STEM and the realities of what women in STEM face from the public and fellow colleagues? The answer to this is one I continue to struggle to find.



About the Author

Associate Professor, Penn State Brandywine // Dr. Laura Guertin is an associate professor of earth science at Penn State Brandywine. She has a PhD in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Miami-RSMAS. She blogs about geoscience education and educational technology for the American Geophysical Union at GeoEd Trek ( and can be found on Twitter (@guertin).

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