SIAM News Blog

A Discussion of Gender Diversity in STEM

By Lina Sorg

The male-to-female gender ratio of those who pursue advanced degrees in science and mathematics remains unbalanced, with far fewer woman than men. Those women that do enter the field sometimes face gender-related stigmas or challenges while advancing their careers. A panel of female mathematicians at the SIAM Annual Meeting shared their personal difficulties and triumphs as women in STEM, and offered advice to fellow women in both academia and industry. The panel featured Dr. Lynn Apfel (Department of Defense), Dr. Lisa Fauci (Tulane University), Dr. Rachel Levy (Harvey Mudd College), and Dr. Christine Tobler (Mathworks, Inc.).

Each panelist began with her background and career motivations. Apfel knew after graduate school that she wanted a career outside of academia. “I see myself as a bridge person between the hardcore mathematicians and the analysts,” she said of her job as an applied research mathematician at the Department of Defense. Levy, on the other hand, always assumed she’d pursue education. “I grew up playing school as a kid, so that was really all I considered for my whole life,” she said. After an extended stint teaching middle school English and math, Levy earned her Ph.D. She is also SIAM’s current VP for Education. “Service has been a huge part of what I do as well,” she said. “Education and working with teachers and students continues to be really important to me.”

The path to mathematics was unsurprising for Tobler, as both of her parents studied the subject. After discarding her original plans to become a librarian, Tobler wrote programs while pursuing her math degrees and found she enjoyed it. This fondness led to position as a software developer at MathWorks. “I thought I’d like to make something that affects people,” she said.

Aspirations of becoming a Wall Street accountant governed Fauci’s early career plans. As a female, she was not expected to go to college; her older sisters were not even allowed to go. Fauci entered school as an accounting major, but switched to mathematics at the encouragement of her advisor. “You need to find those allies in your life, the few people—male or female—who push you forward,” she said, a sentiment echoed by the whole panel.

Upon her advisor’s suggestion, she later applied and was accepted to New York University’s Courant Institute Ph.D. program. “It was damn scary,” she said. “It was sink or swim.” Fauci was one of only two women in a class of 20 people, and acknowledged that she faced some gender-specific commentary while in school. “The graduate coordinator asked me, ‘what does your father think that his little girl wants to do something like this?’” she said, clarifying that such belittling comments are nearly nonexistent now. Tobler has experienced similar language targeting as well, referencing gender-specific jokes that stem from being a minority. “I don’t know any woman who stopped or didn’t finish because of this,” she said, “but it can make you feel less welcome.”

Lynn Apfel (Department of Defense), Rachel Levy (Harvey Mudd College), and Lisa Fauci (Tulane University) discuss issues of gender diversity at the SIAM Annual Meeting. Staff photo.

Levy wants to see an increased awareness of gender-charged language. “There’s more powerful language that we need to be using,” she said, preferring words such as “brilliant” and “groundbreaking” over gentler traits such as “compassionate” and “kind.” Lynn chimed in as well, adding that soft skills—while certainly good to have, and desirable in an employer—seem to be devalued in industry. 

When asked about gender challenges in academia, Levy admitted that she sometimes hears of early faculty struggling with parenting. “Young parents, male and female, are struggling with time management and prioritization of things in their life,” she said. The fact that some faculty abuse parental leave as extra sabbatical only exacerbates the problem. 

Levi admitted that having children and maintaining a career comes with challenges, especially at an R1 research institution. “The pressure for paper production is higher at an R1, so it [parenting] tends to be more of a concern,” she said. “At a teaching institution there are more ways to demonstrate scholarship.” Fauci, whose two sons are 27 and 23, echoed that sentiment. “In industry it’s not publish or perish,” she said. “Personally, I got much more focused after having kids.”

Levy elaborated on the stigmas surrounding motherhood and academia, and reminded attendees that potential employers legally cannot ask female applicants if they are pregnant or plan to become pregnant. “I think that there are still attitudes about productivity and pregnancy and parenting,” she said. “There are really issues of productivity with parenting taking a tremendous amount of energy.” This response prompted a discussion about parenting gaps in one’s CV; the panel agreed that women should be upfront about such gaps, which are only detrimental if left unexplained. 

The panel also spoke about the importance of powerful mentors. “Something that I’m seeing is senior woman having trouble identifying mentors that’ll be allies to them, so that they’re getting the recognition they deserve,” Levi said. She alluded to longstanding concerns about equal pay, salary raises, award nominations, and paper citations. 

Fauci, who recently chaired the Promotion and Tenure Committee at Tulane University, has not experienced discrimination in the awarding of either promotions or tenure. “Once you get to that point, I haven’t seen any gender bias,” she said. “I’m happy to say that. I think the bottleneck is in hiring.” Fauci explained her perception of the hiring problem. People have a tendency to replicate themselves, and often hire what they know. “It’s a boy’s network,” she said. “The same thing holds true in underrepresented minorities. I don’t think there’s this evil, ‘we’re going to keep woman and underrepresented minorities out’ attitude, I think it’s just people work with who they’re comfortable with.”

There have undoubtedly been great strides towards gender equality in STEM fields over recent decades. While there continues to be room for improvement, all four panelists expressed contentment in their respective positions. “My career has been motivated by collaborations across the board, working with good people and with people I like,” Fauci said. 

   Lina Sorg is the associate editor of SIAM News.


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