Building a Support Network for Women Scientists: A Q&A with the Women in Science Coalition

In order of appearance, left to right: Leah Morgan, Morgan Fogarty, Caroline Magnain, Emma Boyd, Paulita Lara, Aubryn Samaroo, Lyssa Manning and Viviana Siless

There is no doubt that women have made significant contributions to science and other STEM fields, but they unfortunately remain vastly underrepresented—particularly in advanced positions.

They also face a number of challenges in the workplace such as balancing the demands of career and family, achieving parity with their male colleagues and feeling as if their thoughts and opinions are equally valued.

That’s why two women from the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging banded together to form a coalition to support and encourage women scientists.

Women in Science was created to generate thoughtful conversation about gender and cultural gaps in science while providing tools and a safe environment to achieve gender equity. 

We have covered Women in Science events in the past, and loved them so much we invited them to do a series our blog. But first, we wanted to get to know the people behind it all.

Why was the Women in Science Series Started?

Viviana Siless

Viv (Viviana Siless, Chair): Currently in the center, as everywhere else, there is a large discrepancy between the amount of men in top positions vs lower positions.

Starting at the research assistant level, gender distribution is fairly comparable, but with a larger number of women. However, as seniority increases, these numbers change: the male gender becomes predominant and diversity decreases.

Paige Sparks

Paige (Paige Sparks, Event Coordinator): Due to the power structures in our society, young or early career scientists who are different from those in power (whether this difference is due to gender diversity, racial diversity, socioeconomic diversity, multicultural diversity, etc..) are often put in uncomfortable situations by those above them, and shedding light on these issues is important.

The vast majority of people who I have encountered have good intentions, and might not know that some of the systems they help to keep functioning are actually hurting people who are in some way different from them. 

Ryn Flaherty

Ryn (Ryn Flaherty, Other Genders Advocate): Having done the majority of my undergraduate training while presenting as a woman, and now presenting as a cis-assumed/passing transgender man, there is a drastic difference in the treatment of young scientists based on gender.

I no longer experience the routine belittlement of my intelligence or experience that I did before I transitioned. Likewise, people are now far less likely to comment on my age.

What Challenges Do Women Face in the Research, Academia and STEM Fields?

Edmarie Guzman-Velez

Edmarie (Edmarie Guzman-Velez, Outreach Coordinator): Women often report experiencing discrimination related to hiring, promotion, salary, space, and access to administrative staff, as well as greater sexual harassment and scholarly isolation.

There is also often a feeling of needing to prove themselves and do things “right” to “earn” their place (and a voice) on the table and because their performance will impact the opportunities that will be available to the women who come after them.

Then there are the challenges for women who decide to have kids and those are a whole different set of added barriers.

Paulita Lara

Paulita (Paulita Lara, Event Promotion & Series Branding): A specific example that many of my peers have noticed is the gendering of roles at the research assistant (RA) and clinical research coordinator (CRC) level.

In various labs and situations, women RAs are given more administrative, and secretarial roles while their male counterparts (also RAs) are given more of the data analysis/computer science roles.

What Do You Hope People Get out of Attending a Women in Science Seminar?

Lyssa Manning

Lyssa (Lyssa Manning, Event Coordinator): I hope people come to understand this is not an issue for one identity alone, but rather a space to grow through communication, activism, and support of all identities.

I also hope these events bring issues to light not only to the folks who face them every day, but also to those who are not faced with these setbacks, and that this helps bring awareness to the importance of working together to establish parity.

Viviana Siless (left) and Emma Boyd

Paige: I hope folks who are involved in Women in Science get some of the tools they need to help make active change. I’m constantly learning about myself while participating in this series, and endlessly thankful to my fellow committee members for helping me learn!

What Are Some Examples of Ways People Can Support Women in Science?

Paulita: Citing women in your work! And advocating for your women colleagues to help them get their papers cited. 

Lyssa: Ask questions! If you discover a certain uncomfortable situation/gut reaction/comment/thought, don’t ignore it — wrestle with it, learn from it, and discuss it.

Caroline Magnain

Caroline (Caroline Magnain, Event Promotion & Series Branding): Take the time to talk around you with people of diverse backgrounds and try to understand what bias they are experiencing. If you witness bias, try to rectify it.

For example, it happens frequently that a woman will bring an idea to the table during a meeting and will be ignored. Then a male will say it again and will get acknowledged for it. Make sure to point out that this has already been said by your female colleague.

Why Do You Love Science?

Lyssa: Scientific research is one of the last, and greatest frontiers for true discovery. There are more unknowns than knowns, and the more diverse the sea of people doing the research, the greater the potential for discovery becomes.

Caroline: I love the challenge that science brings. And in our field, neuroscience, it brings so many people with many different backgrounds.

From left to right: Paulita Lara, Lyssa Manning, Viviana Siless, Dr. Joan Reede, Edmarie Guzman-Velez, Andrew Lithen, Leah Mason and Alison Stevens at a Women in Science event with Dr. Reede on the importance of diversity.

Edmarie: It promotes curiosity and creativeness. It allows you to be ambitious and ask some very interesting questions that no one knows the answer to (yet) that could impact the lives of many for years to come. 

You also get to meet truly amazing and smart people who are driven and determined to make this world a better place.

Who is Your Favorite Scientist and Why?

Viv: Marie Curie. She had a hard life, she fought to become a professor during a time where it wasn’t allowed for women to do so. A woman in Paris, Jadwiga Dydynska, helped her get a scholarship that allowed her stay in Paris to continue her studies, and I think that’s a nice example of how we need to help each other. 

Aubryn Samaroo

Aubryn (Aubryn Samaroo, Intersectionality Advocate): Caroline Herschel is pretty amazing. She was the first woman to discover a comet in the highly gendered field of astronomy. She even had her findings published by the Royal Society (the first woman to do so).

Interestingly, she had a helper in her story. Her brother was the king’s personal astronomer and convinced the king that she deserved a salary as well.

It shows that this has been a pervasive problem since the 1700s, but can be helped with multiple people fighting for rights. 

Women in Science Committee

  • Viviana Siless, PhD, Chair
  • Paige Sparks, Event Coordinator
  • Lyssa Manning, Event Coordinator
  • Aubryn Samaroo, Intersectionality Advocate
  • Edmarie Guzman-Velez, PhD, Outreach Coordinator
  • Kelsey Biddle, Outreach Coordinator
  • Leah Morgan, Finance
  • Paulita Lara, Event Promotion & Series Branding
  • Caroline Magnain, PhD, Event Promotion & Series Branding
  • Andrew Lithen, Other Genders Advocate
  • Ryn Flaherty, Other Genders Advocate
  • Robert Barry, PhD, Faculty Liaison
  • Maria Mody, PhD, Faculty Liaison
  • Emma Boyd, Founder
  • Allison Stevens, Founder

The committee would like to thank Bruce Rosen, MD, PhD, and William Shaw, JD, for their support and space provided to the WiS.

For more information on the Women in Science coalition, visit their site.

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