I Want to See Women in STEM—So I Wrote a Book About It

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By Lisa Pinsker Munoz ’00

I remember arriving at Cornell in the mid-1990s, thrilled at being part of the Cornell Tradition community and eager to dive into my classes in the College of Engineering.

I had no worries about fitting in or whether I could “cut it”; I had been at the top of my class in high school, taking advanced math and science classes, and I was not daunted in knowing that as a woman in engineering, I’d be in the minority in many of my classes.

But as I progressed through my intro engineering courses, I struggled. I also did not feel as though I belonged, though I was not sure why.

Lisa Munoz

I was able to make it through those classes with decent marks but ultimately decided I did not want to be an engineer after all. Luckily, Cornell’s broad offerings enabled me to stay within engineering but pivot to an interdisciplinary earth science program while specializing in science writing.

If I could go back in time, I would not change a thing.

But fast forward nearly 30 years to when I returned to campus this past fall, and I have a new perspective on my experience and those of other women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Lisa Munoz as a freshman
As a freshman in 1996.

Not only has the Engineering college reached gender parity in terms of numbers since I was a student, but the conversations have shifted—mirroring broader trends I observed in writing a recent book on gender equity in STEM fields.

The central question has become: how do institutions and workplaces create a community of belonging for everyone in the sciences?

First, the numbers.

When I entered as a freshman, about 25% of my cohort were women.

Now that figure has climbed to about 50%, with the Class of 2022 marking when the Engineering college became the first of its size and stature to enroll equal numbers of undergraduate women and men.

This fantastic achievement came, in part, from dedicated work to help spark interest in engineering among young women, as well as to create peer mentorship and support once on campus.

When I visited Cornell in November to speak about my book, I could see that change through the robust peer mentoring groups on campus, including the Society of Women Engineers (of which I was a member as an undergrad), Graduate and Professional Women’s Network, Graduate Women in Science, and Women in Science and Engineering.

When I entered as a freshman, about 25% of my cohort were women; now, that figure has climbed to about 50%.

These groups connect women with each other to build mentorship networks while also providing broader resources and opportunities in STEM fields. They also provide safe spaces where members can share their stories and gain insights from one another—an empowering experience for many that I saw firsthand at a dinner, hosted by the Graduate School, with representatives from several of these groups.

Seeing the broad swath of individuals engaging in discussion about their work and pathways was inspiring, though the event drove home a clear message from my book: there is still a lot of work to be done to remove the remaining hurdles for gender equity.

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Throughout discussions I have had on various college campuses since my book came out, a few clear themes have emerged.

First, women and others from groups underrepresented in the sciences have expressed frustration with having to explain to individuals in their labs that equity is still a challenge, perceiving that inequities are no longer an issue given the greater parity in numbers.

Yet numerous social science studies show persistent hurdles in women’s advancement at various phases of their careers—stemming from inadequate mentorship structures, implicit bias, inflexible work environments, and sexual harassment.

The cover of "Women in Science Now"

My advice to those up against naysayers is to arm themselves with data.

One example is lab space allotment for female scientists compared to their male counterparts. In response to individual observations, an institution might say that having less space is a fluke, or due to when the researchers started working there.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography collected the data, however, and found that (as reported in Science magazine) “56 women scientists have on average half as much research space and one-third the storage space of their 157 male counterparts.”

Numerous social science studies show persistent hurdles in women’s advancement at various phases of their careers.

The findings could not be explained by number of years at the institution, funding levels, discipline, or group size—revealing that implicit gender bias could be at work.

Another common concern I encountered among students was the lack of female leaders at high levels of academia and industry. Countering this trend will require concerted efforts to mitigate against bias and to create environments based on principles of fairness, well-being, and accountability.

Examples abound where such principles, rooted in social science research, have led to greater retention of women and other underrepresented individuals.

Lisa Munoz at the Cornell store
At a book signing at the Cornell Store.

Some of this work starts at the beginning—that first big college lecture—and in ways professors can signal to their students that they belong there and can succeed. Those seemingly small signals add up to giant gains in talent.

From my time as an undergraduate to a working professional, I see how the scientific enterprise has evolved to increasingly realize the value of providing an environment that focuses on growing talent rather than weeding it out.

Guided by evidence-based research and driven to continue telling the stories of women in science, I am excited to help grow and elevate the next generation of innovators.

Lisa Pinsker Munoz ’00 is the author of Women in Science Now: Stories and Strategies for Achieving Equity, published by Columbia University Press. She is a science writer and the founder and president of SciComm Services, a consulting firm in the Washington, DC, area.

(All images provided.)

Published February 19, 2024


Comments

  1. Judith (Shulman) Weis, Class of 1962

    When I was at Cornell (class of ’62) women comprised about 1/3 of the students overall – the reason given was inadequate space in the dorms. But what was most striking was the absence of female faculty. “Of course” there were none in the then-Zoology Department, where I majored, but I remember only one female professor in any class I took in the College of Arts and Sciences. She was in the French department. I did see a few teaching assistants in the labs, who were graduate students. When I got to graduate school, there were a few women in the Bio Dept at NYU. And when I started as a faculty member at Rutgers (Newark) campus in 1967, there were already three women in the department. I wouldn’t attribute that to an enlightened attitude but the fact that they could pay us less.

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