Women in STEM

Marie Curie is one of the most famous scientists and physicists in history. She won the Nobel Prize in 1903 (alongside her husband Pierre Curie and Antoine Henri). At the time, it was, obviously, very hard for women to pursue  a career in sciences. Indeed, this has been the case since ancient times.  

Remember Hypatia? She was an extremely talented Hellenistic Neoplatonist astronomer and mathematician. She was the first female mathematician in history. Today, she is recognized as a universal genius credited with many discoveries. Her work was seen as so revolutionary that she was murdered by a mob of Christians.

Remember Laura Maria Caterina Bassi? She was an Italian physicist and academic who lived during the 18th century. Her story is worth remembering. She was the second woman in the world to earn the title of Doctor of Philosophy and the first to have a doctorate in science.  She is also the first ever female university professor. What is more, Lazzaro Spallanzani, the Italian biologist and physiologist, was one of her students. She became the most important populariser of Newtonian mechanics in Italy. 

Bassi was educated privately by her family. She was taught Latin, French and mathematics from an early age by her cousin. Moreover, she married Giuseppe Veratti, a doctor in medicine and fellow lecturer in anatomy in Bologna. 

She was very fortunate to have been given an opportunity to study. Indeed, it was not common, at the time, for women to receive an education. Gender roles were rigid during those years. Women were basically mothers and homemakers: the more wealth, the more estate to manage, the less freedom for women to pursue anything else. Women were raised in order to look after the children, the husband, the kitchen, and the garden. Often, women would have many children, although only a few of them survived childhood. For example, Laura Bassi may have had as many as twelve (but only 5 reached adulthood). 

Rich children, especially males, were sent to expensive schools. It was mostly boys who could attend elementary schools. In some rare cases, mothers and family members taught girls until schools accepted females. Girls were mostly taught writing, music, and needlework whereas boys tended to study more academic subjects.

This is why women who were scientists and mathematicians were extremely rare in the past: girls, with only a few exceptions, did not have the chance to study academic subjects at all.

Opportunities in education are still not the same for women and men, also because of the traditional roles given to men and women. Could we really state that women have the same chances to become scientists as men? Facts and statistics can answer this question. According to the Unesco Institute of Statistics (UIS), less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. In Bolivia, women account for 63% researchers, in France the rate is 26% and in Ethiopia a shocking 8%. Furthermore, several studies also show that women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields publish less, are paid less for their research, and do not progress as far as men in their careers. 

How can we explain the underrepresentation of women in the scientific field? It is obviously not about talent, as women are not innately less talented compared to men. Moreover, talent can be compensated by education, and skills can be enhanced by training. One of the reasons for the lack of women professionals in science, as well as in other traditionally male-dominated fields, is the insufficient encouragement women receive in undertaking this path compared to their male counterparts. Indeed, society teaches women that their main role should be taking care of their family and their personal life rather than building a career and becoming independent. This is why, often, women’s  professions and their personal life seem to be incompatible, while for men it is simpler to combine the two. External encouragement and gender roles highly affect people’s choices and mindset. Imagine how the situation would change and revert if men were the ones expected to take care of children and women the ones meant to earn money and have a professional life. 

However, unfortunately, this is not the only reason. Otherwise, women without children would have the same success rate and opportunities as men. An additional cause of women’s underrepresentation in science is that men appear as more appropriate for professional roles, especially in certain fields, regardless of their experience and education. Even people who believe in equality and meritocracy can implicitly (and even unknowingly) be influenced by gender schemas (Swim, 1994). Furthermore, women often appear to be less competent than men both to men and women. 

Explicit and unconscious discrimination starts at a very young age for girls and continues during adulthood. Throughout their life, females encounter many more obstacles than their male counterparts. Every small challenge represents a disadvantage and each of them counts. This is how the gap between men and women is created. The accumulation of advantage makes it easier for men to reach higher positions and build more successful careers, especially in fields that are traditionally linked to their gender.

Nowadays, the situation has improved considerably compared to the past, although the degree to which this is true varies from country to country.  Indeed, in most “developed” countries, for example, women usually have access to higher levels of education and are free to choose scientific studies.  

To learn more about the position of women in science, I interviewed Valentina Di Santo, Assistant Professor of Functional Morphology at Stockholm University, Sweden. 

–       Can you tell me a little about your research career?

I first studied Natural Sciences at the University of Florence (Italy), with a thesis on thermal biology of sharks after a life-changing internship at the Bimini Biological Field Station in the Bahamas under the mentorship of Samuel Gruber at University of Miami (USA). I continued my studies at the University of West Florida (USA), where I studied the effect of thermotaxis (shuttling between temperatures) on digestion efficiency in stingrays and sharks, and I really fell in love with doing research. I moved to Boston (USA), to work on my PhD for 5 years at Boston University, where I studied the effect of ocean acidification and warming on development and escape performance of little skates. I found that skates from neighboring populations responded differently to climate-related stressors, and that smaller individuals may be better able to cope with rapidly changing environments. As a PhD student, I had the opportunity to teach field courses in the Marine Semester. We traveled to Belize every November and December where students would run field projects. There, I studied the role of body size on thermal tolerance and digestive sensitivity in cleaner gobies. Then I switched gears during my postdoc with George Lauder at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University (USA), to study biomechanics of fish locomotion. Working in George’s lab has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. Studying biomechanics really changed my perspective as an eco-physiologist. I was able to show that fishes use a combination of anaerobic and aerobic metabolism to fuel steady swimming and that they rather swim at intermediate than lower speeds to avoid incurring into postural costs. Since I have joined the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University (Sweden) as Assistant Professor, I have been leading a large scale evolutionary and acclimation project to quantify the transgenerational effects of ocean acidification on schooling behavior using forage fishes. Although current theories predict that adaptation to the environment may be achieved over a long time, there is now evidence for rapid transgenerational acclimation (two-three generations) to stressors.  This gives us hope that fishes may be able to adjust to rapid changes in the environment, but we need to understand the mechanisms behind this potential (and promising) outcome.

–       What are your biggest achievements in your career so far?

There are some studies I am deeply connected to, such as those on skate locomotion. I am continuing those studies now in my lab. Very athletic fishes get a lot of attention, because I think as humans, we are attracted to high performance organisms. I am generally more curious though about how non-athletic fishes can overcome their morphological and physiological limitations, to maximize locomotor performance.

–       Do you think that science is still a men-dominated field? 

By far, the top positions in science are men-dominated. It is an obvious problem that we need to address. Quite frankly, the issue goes beyond gender, as minorities are still clearly underrepresented in science. To break this tendency, one approach is to give information about different opportunities and provide space and funding for students from underrepresented and underserved groups to conduct research. I received extremely high-quality mentorship while I was working at Harvard and I know this has both shaped my career and my mentoring approach.  I try to replicate the same mentorship model in my lab. 

–       What contribution could women give to science and scientific research? 

Women have made groundbreaking contributions to science: from unraveling the structure of DNA to computer programming to rocket science (literally).  We are faced with extremely pressing challenges and we need brilliant thinkers to solve them. Simply put, science – we – cannot afford to lose ½ of the brain capacity because of roadblocks that women (and especially women of color) experience along their career.

–       What is your favorite part of science?

My absolute favorite part about doing science is when I have just finished my experiments and I analyze the data for the first time. At that moment I hold the key to answer a question. To me, it is the most exciting and profound moment in science.

–       What is your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?

This is a hard question because failure is very important in the scientific process. Every time an experiment fails (i.e. you don’t get the result you expect) it challenges you to dig deeper in the problem, the experiment, your assumptions. Suddenly, failure is exactly what you need to answer a question and push your field forward. In that sense, my biggest (dearest) failure has been to assume the relationship between swimming speed and metabolic rates in fishes to be linear (based on previous studies) only to find out it is instead U-shaped. This sparked a new interest in quantifying 3D movement and cost of locomotion in fishes while swimming at the extremes of their speed ranges, to understand how they can overcome environmental and intrinsic limitations to increase locomotor performance. I always see failures in my research as exciting opportunities to answer challenging questions in biomechanics and physiology.

In conclusion, although women’s position in science is still disadvantaged compared to the possibilities men have, we are happy to see that women are still able to reach success despite difficulties they may face. Valentina Di Santo, like many other women scientists and researchers, is the proof that women are as capable and as talented as men: no impediment will ever prevent them from achieving  their goals. It may take time, but future generations will experience equality thanks to the work in progress and thanks to the efforts people like Valentina Di Santo are investing for our generation and generations to come. 


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