Ladies in Lab Coats: YSU Professors Facilitate Women in Science and Engineering Career Day

By Ashley Smith

On Feb. 21, Youngstown State University is inviting young women from the Mahoning County, Trumbull County and Western Pennsylvania areas to participate in an engineering career workshop for women in science. The event will feature hands-on science experiments, several professionals working in the field of science and speakers representing the university.

The purpose of the workshop is to present successful women role models for young female students who are considering a career in the sciences and to recruit these students for YSU. Diana Fagan, the Women in Science and Engineering Career Day director and professor of biological sciences, said she hopes to have an impact on the students that come.

“We hope to increase their interest in science and engineering as potential careers and to encourage them to have any questions they have answered by women experts in the fields,” Fagan said.

The event serves as an opportunity for young women to explore the sciences and interact with successful female scientists. Heather Lorimer, the assistant director for the WISE career day and an associate professor of molecular biology and microbiology, said she hopes the event will work towards overcoming the issues that young women face when looking to start a career in the sciences.

“There are many issues involving the under-representation of women in STEM. One of them is public perception about what women can and should do. Another is the weird societal anti-math bias we have, particularly for girls. Another is how women balance jobs and family life, which having the panels is a real help for, as most of the STEM professionals have families,” Lorimer said.

There will be a few male presenters at the event, but all of those who are invited to participate are females. Fagan explained that the gender separation was implemented to create a more comfortable environment for discussion for the interested young women attending.

Fagan said she believes that one of the key methods for developing a stronger generation of females interested in the sciences is through mentorship.

“Mentoring is definitely a problem. I have encountered mentoring problems in my career. I am still in my field because I had a scientist mother and developed confidence in my abilities through her encouragement. That is why I feel that this activity is so important, as most girls do not have the same kind of support that I had,” she said. “Putting on this event is a lot of work that is largely unrecognized or unrewarded, but I have been doing it for 18 years because I feel that it is very important. I have received comments from women who now attend YSU or have attended YSU in the past that have said they ended up in their career because of the influence the career day had on their choices.”

Ultimately, the push to bring more women into the sciences is a response to years of gender under representation in the field, a problem Lorimer believes is rooted in societal problems.

“I think that societal norms and pressures are a huge problem. There is also a problem with inadvertent, and occasionally intentional, misogyny. Women among men who are used to a male-only community often do not listen to the ideas and work of women. I have many professional and academic friends in mathematics, engineering and physics who have told endless stories about being ignored in their meetings and their ideas not being listened to until a man repeats them,” Lorimer said. “That is not as big of a problem in biology and some areas of chemistry where women are so common. In spite of that, at my level as a professor there are way more men than women and there seems to be an odd bias as a result.”

Lorimer not only has colleagues who have experienced gender bias, she has experienced it herself.

“I remember being at an important scientific meeting, a Gordon conference, and I happened to be sitting at the table where the organizers were along with a number of prominent scientists. The subject came up on who to pick as the lead organizers of the [next] meeting in two years. Someone immediately suggested Carol Greider — who later won the Nobel Prize for her work — and she agreed to be one of the organizers. Other names were flying around and finally two other scientists at the table were selected. It so happens that they were all women. One of the organizers said ‘Wait! We need at least some Y chromosomes on the committee!’ I spoke up and said ‘Why? In all the years where it was all men did you guys think, hey, we can’t do this without having at least one woman involved?’ All the women scientists at the table agreed and the guy sat back, but he looked very uneasy. The women chosen were all very well respected scientists, but the mere fact that they were all women was suspect,” Lorimer said.

Fagan wants to encourage women to consider a career in science and hopes that changing trends in media will become more diverse in their depiction of women in the sciences.

“Our media also has not traditionally portrayed science in a very positive light. Scientists are seen as unusually brilliant and nerdy or destined to destroy the world and women are often not seen as scientists or engineers. That is changing, as is diversity in television and movies, but none of those changes are happening rapidly,” Fagan said.

This event is set to start at 8:30 a.m. with most of the events taking place in Kilcawley Center. Young women and their parents are invited to attend.