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Combating Sexism in STEM

Reed students. Reed College students. STEM. Working Weekend.

Reed students attended a panel on "Women in STEM" at Working Weekend ’14.

As snow fell outside, Reedies braved the cold to take part in “Women in STEM,” a panel discussion for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, on Saturday.

The session was part of Reed’s 2014 Working Weekend, an event hosted by the Center for Life Beyond Reed to help students learn about career paths and strategies from Reed alumni.

Attendees might have anticipated that a major theme in the discussion would be the difficulties of being female in the male-dominated STEM world, but Janet Gunzner-Toste ’93 set the tone by saying, “I didn’t know there were gender issues in science. I just plowed ahead and enjoyed it.”

Janet is the global project manager at Genentech, a biotechnology company in San Francisco.

The panelists spent most of the time describing factors and challenges outside of gender that played a role in forming their interests and careers. They related how they had become interested in science, described their scattered academic experiences and attempts—a process to which many Reedies can relate—and how great teachers and professors influenced them.

 “I should start by saying—I’m not a good physicist,” said Cindy Joe ’08, an accelerator operator at Fermilab in Illinois. “It doesn’t come easily to me. But I felt I was doing something bigger and better than myself.”

Chantal Sudbrack ’97, materials research engineer at NASA Glenn Research Center, emphasized the influence and importance of academic relationships, especially with a PhD advisor, in a scientist’s career. Such a relationship can ensure one becomes a part of and has access to that professor’s network.

She strongly recommended applying for fellowships and making use of internships, not just for experience, but to try out different options.

“Listen to your gut!” she encouraged students.

 As their time drew to a close, each panelist spent a few minutes addressing the issues of being a woman in science.

Cindy Joe admitted that the sexism in the field can be “kind of a bummer sometimes, and not in the ways you would think, necessarily.” Rather than overtly sexist comments, she explained that she has more trouble with thoughtless modes of address and being excluded, for example, from outings like a supposedly recreational fishing trip with the guys where work is still going to be discussed.

Gloria Johnson ’79, a recently retired technology marketing executive, reported, “There were no women doing what I was doing: there’s just still a handful of us.  So everybody remembered who you were, which can be good and bad, because you can be ‘Oh that’s the woman’ or you can be ‘Oh yeah, I remember, Gloria’s the one, and I need to go see her about this, she can fix this.”

Janet Gunzner-Toste described a lack of community and female role models who support other women. “The few women who are out there are kind of like electrons,” she said. “They kind of repulse each other, they’re kind of competitive.”

What should women do in the face of these issues? In cases of the more subtle, unintentional sorts of sexism, you just have to “let it roll off you,” the panelists said.

However, it is important, Janet advised, to make sure that in the group you join, the leader is aware and will address problems.

Keep in mind, they all agreed, that you can put yourself forward, make your own opportunities, and shape your own environment.

Tags: working weekend, careers, alumni, STEM

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