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Female professors in STEM reflect on experiences in their fields

Women in STEM on navigating male-dominated fields in academia

Only 27 percent of workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the United States are women, despite women comprising 48 percent of our nation’s workforce, according to a 2019 study. Breaking this down even further, subdivisions within STEM including engineering and computer science have notably less female representation.

Across the board, women are underrepresented in the sciences. For the women who make up the University’s STEM faculty, this has brought obstacles to pursuing their passions throughout their careers.

Iris Bahar, professor of computer science and engineering

Bahar was drawn to science at a young age. Looking to her father, who was an engineer, as a role model, she took an interest in math and science in school, finding that the subjects came to her easily.

This made pursuing computer engineering in college “a natural fit,” she said.

Today, Bahar conducts research that runs along the “boundary of hardware and software,” looking into “energy-efficient and reliable computing.” But throughout her career, Bahar has encountered challenges within her field because of her gender.

Since she was an undergraduate, Bahar faced allegations from her peers that she was only able to get positions because she was a girl. “The reason you were able to get this internship was because you’re a girl,” Bahar said. “Like there’s special slots reserved for you, not because you really earned it, but because you’re a woman.”

Even though she attempted to ignore these “off-handed comments,” Bahar discovered that “they can easily create a lot of self-doubt.” She would think to herself, “‘I don’t really belong here, how did I get here? I don’t deserve it.” 

This created added pressure for Bahar as she pursued her career. She experienced  ‘impostor syndrome’ before she even knew a term existed for her self-doubts. Once she learned that there was a term for what she was feeling, it helped her realize “that many people feel this and that (she) wasn’t alone.”

Today, Bahar looks to create community with other women in her field. This effort has included joining affinity groups for women in STEM at the University and reaching out to women scientists at other institutions.

“I think having a sense of community is extremely important,” she said. “Find your cohort and find your support group, and that can be really, really helpful in… making sure you’re in a good place.”

Monica Linden, senior lecturer in neuroscience

When she first went to college, Linden thought she wanted to be an engineer. But a guest lecturer during her freshman orientation helped her realize how much is left to discover about the human brain, and she grew interested in a different path of study: neuroscience.

While attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology for both her undergraduate and graduate studies, Linden got involved in research. But oftentimes she found herself as one of only a few women on a lab’s staff, which was challenging.

At one lab Linden considered applying to, she said a senior graduate student who worked there told her that “‘We don’t want you in the lab, we don’t want women. It’s like a locker room in here, we want to keep that going.’” 

Linden had grown used to being among few women in her field, but this experience of sexism changed the way she viewed future workplaces. “It wasn’t ever really a problem until someone explicitly turned it into one,” she said.

No longer comfortable with pursuing research in that lab, Linden found another lab with more women researchers, in the hope of finding someone who “could be more of a mentor or someone to look up to,” she added.

Still, she continued to hear sexist discourse in this lab concerning whether women could be as smart as men.“Even in that lab that was pretty equally gender balanced, there were still these kinds of comments,” Linden said. At Brown, too, a lack of female researchers to talk to on the day she interviewed for her position in the Neuroscience Department limited how welcome she felt.

Seeing the growth in representation of women in STEM fields, Linden remains “cautiously optimistic,” but notes that the physical sciences and computer sciences, especially, are still lacking in female representation.

All in all, working with other women has been a highlight for Linden. Despite instances of sexism, “there were also opportunities for women to come together and be supportive of each other in spite of everything,” she said.

For other women looking to pursue STEM, Linden said it is important to consider your workplace from a structural perspective, including the presence of other women and policies that support your goals.

“I became pregnant with my first child in my first year that I was at Brown,” she said. The policies at Brown gave her what she needed for her “work-life balance,” and Linden encouraged other women to look for an institution whose policies are supportive of whatever future plans they have.

Nicole R. Nugent, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and emergency medicine

Growing up, Nugent never would have expected that one day she would be conducting her own research on how biological and social processes interact and influence psychological outcomes during times of stress.

Throughout her time in school, Nugent “always seemed to become the confidant to classmates who were struggling with everything from eating disorders to abuse to thoughts of suicide,” she wrote in an email to the Herald. But she “couldn’t imagine a world” where her role as a confidant for her peers would turn into a career.

“I’m not proud of this now, but the truth is that in my public middle school, being smart meant other kids would try to cheat off my tests and that boys wouldn’t like me, so it seemed easier to pretend I wasn’t smart,” she wrote.

Eventually, Nugent began to work harder in school, finding satisfaction in surprising her peers with her wit. One time, she even quoted a textbook from memory after a boy in school made fun of her, she recalled.

Still, even in navigating higher academia, Nugent has encountered discrimination on the basis of the gender.

“At one research conference, a senior male colleague loudly commented on my body in front of more than a dozen colleagues and leaders in the field. I was horrified and no one in the room knew quite how to respond,” she wrote. “He would later corner me at the conference to tell me how flattered I should be by his comment. After that, I avoided events that could have benefitted my career because he would be there.”

In taking on leadership roles in research, too, Nugent had to work harder than her male peers.

 “Learning to lead, as a woman, was something that was more of a process (for me) than (for) some of my male colleagues,” she wrote. “I needed to find my own style of leadership; the models provided by male mentors/colleagues were not a great fit for me.”

Today, Nugent has become more comfortable working in her field, finding support from mentors along the way and succeeding in spite of the sexism she has faced. But she still thinks there is room for the field to grow.

“In clinical psychology, the field is increasingly dominated by women, though the highest levels of leadership remain men even today,” she wrote. For Nugent and others, it is important for women to reach higher ranks in clinical psychology. Many women in these higher positions within her field have become “mentors and sponsors who (she) could trust and whose careers and lives seemed more naturally aligned with (her) own.”

Kavita Ramanan, professor of applied mathematics

The daughter of an algebraic geometer, Ramanan was introduced to mathematics at a young age. Due to his passion for his career, Ramanan’s father “always seemed to be relaxed and enjoying himself,” she wrote in an email to the Herald. “That inspired me to find a career doing something I would enjoy and be passionate about.”

Ramanan explored fields including literature and music before, late into her undergraduate studies, deciding on her field — mathematics, like her father.

But as she entered a male-dominated field, Ramanan faced an uphill battle.

Beginning her career in mathematics came with a “gamut of challenges, such as being told I am occupying a spot that would be better suited for a man, or being told I received some recognition only because I was a woman,” she wrote. In terms of non-research service obligations, at times she has been “given more administrative rather than scientific responsibilities.”

In order to navigate the challenges that come with being a woman in a predominantly male field, Ramanan approaches “things rationally, rather than emotionally.”

“I also tend to look at the glass half-full,” she added, “so (I) am typically quite grateful for my lot. Specifically, the knowledge that there are many others out there who are less socio-economically privileged than me and face more severe challenges helps keep things in perspective.”

Today, Ramanan works “in the field of probability theory and stochastic processes, which involves the study of random phenomena, or phenomena whose outcomes you cannot predict with certainty.” She said that finding support from a diverse community has enhanced her experience pursuing her research interests.

“I have interacted with and made friends with some wonderfully inspiring women in my field, and so definitely greatly appreciate their presence,” she wrote.

“However, it is not just about having more women,” she wrote. “The ideal community for me would be a mosaic of people with a good balance of different genders or gender identities, socio-economic backgrounds, nationalities, interests,” which would lead “to a wonderfully enriching research environment.”

To other women pursuing careers in STEM, Ramanan wrote that it is important not to “easily sacrifice your dreams” and to “surround yourself with people that understand and support your passion.”

“Keep in mind that being a minority in STEM can also provide you with an additional sense of purpose,” she wrote, including “opportunities to contribute to your profession in a myriad of different ways.”

Correction: a previous version of the article stated that Kavita Ramanan at times received more administrative rather than scientific responsibilities in research. In fact, Ramanan received more administrative responsibilities in terms of non-research service obligations. The Herald regrets the error.


Jack Walker

Jack Walker served as senior editor of multimedia, social media and post- magazine for The Herald’s 132nd Editorial Board. Jack is an archaeology and literary arts concentrator from Thurmont, Maryland who previously covered the Grad School and staff and student labor beats.

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