Women & Science Symposium Kicks off Women's History Month at Rutgers-Newark

Women’s History Month kicked off at Rutgers-Newark today with the Women & Sciences Symposium, which brought together faculty from all along the Eastern seaboard to discuss topics related to women in the sciences.

The event, which took place in the Robeson Center, featured two panel discussions running an hour and a half each. Female science faculty from Rutgers-Newark and New Brunswick, Harvard, Princeton and UMass-Amherst took part.

The afternoon session was titled Gender, Race and Scientific Discourse. It addressed topics such as the history of science and women’s roles in it, the language of science, and how the study of science is shaped by gender and culture.

The morning panel focused on women in science at Rutgers. Biology Professors Judith Weis and Jessica Ware, Neuroscience Professor April Benasich, and Nancy DiTomaso, Vice Dean for Faculty and Research at the Rutgers Business School, held a lively and wide-ranging discussion, then took questions from the audience of about 50 people.

Encouraging Girls Early

At one point, Benasich raised a concern on the minds of many in the room: Why young girls in the U.S. are not flocking toward science in droves.

“I know the topic of this panel is women in science at Rutgers, but the problem starts long before students get to college,’ Benasich said. “It starts in grade- and middle-school.”

Belinda Edmondson, chair of Rutgers-Newark’s Women and Gender Studies Program, which co-sponsored the event with RU-FAIR, responded from the audience, saying that in thinking about young girls, it’s impossible to separate women’s advancement in science from other endeavors in the U.S.

“Why are fewer young girls interested in science in the U.S. compared with other countries?” Edmondson asked. “Are we just not encouraging and pushing them enough? Other issues like childcare are important, too. Countries that have more supportive childcare and family-leave policies are more likely to see women go into the sciences in larger numbers.”

Advice Versus Opportunity

DiTomaso cited a report she had just published that speaks to this topic from another angle, saying that U.S.-born white and black women don’t see better outcomes with mentoring, which she was quick to add rankled reviewers of her study. According to DiTomaso, all too often mentoring means giving advice.

“And we give advice most often to those who are not like us. But we give opportunities to those who are most like us,” she said. “That comes in many forms: letters of recommendation, networking help and so on. Anything of substance that actually helps advance someone’s career.”

Benasich was adamant that something needs to be done about that, saying that faculty members themselves need to be trained on what good mentoring is and how to avoid succumbing to biases.

A few minutes later, the discussion turned to minority women in the sciences at Rugters-Newark. The new director of the campus’ LSAMP program, Dr. Sivajini Gilchrist, said there are strong initiatives here but that too few faculty and students know about them.

“LSAMP [Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation] is here, but we’ve got to do better getting the word out,” Gilchrist said. “Many of these students go on to get Ph.D.’s, and at-risk students can get one-on-one tutoring from other LSAMP peers. The job it does encouraging minority women to go in to STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] fields is amazing. We just need to publicize it more.”