Q&A: What does it mean to be a woman in the geosciences?

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In 1964, Cynthia Avery, Rosalind Tuthill, and Judy Terry were the first women enrolled in the Stanford Geologic Survey’s summer field geology class. (Photo credit: Bill Dickinson)

Stanford Earth recently transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, six Stanford Earth community members talk about how their identities as women have informed and impacted their careers.

In the 1920s, when Mary Balch Kennedy was completing her coursework as a geology student at Stanford, she wasn’t allowed to attend the required Summer Geology Camp with her male peers because it was considered too dangerous. Instead she had to complete her field requirements alone, contending with the dangers of fieldwork without the support of a field partner. Kennedy was one of Stanford’s earliest female geoscience graduates in 1929.

A history of exclusion

Throughout history, when women were even able to enter scientific spaces, they have long had to navigate restrictions that weren’t placed on men. In fact, some of the earliest scientific associations, like the British Geological Survey and the Royal Society, preferred or required that women scientists remained unmarried and childless , and they were often disqualified from fellowship once they were. Even at Stanford, whether or not women could participate in essential field learning opportunities was in debate until the early 1960s, when the first three women enrolled in Stanford’s summer field geology course.

Other early geoscience pioneers at Stanford include Lou Henry Hoover (BA geology, 1898), who was the first woman to major in geology, and Myra Keen (BA, PhD psychology, 1934), who was the first female faculty member as a professor of paleontology. These early pioneers paved the way at Stanford for more recent trailblazers like Gail Mahood (AB, MA, PhD geology, 1980), the first woman to be named department chair in the school; Elizabeth Miller (BA, MA, PhD geology and geophysics, 1977), the first woman to run the Stanford Geological Survey; Pamela Matson (BS, MS, PhD forest ecology, 1983), the first woman to be named dean of the school; Paula Welander (BA, MS, PhD microbiology, 2007), the first Latina to attain tenure at Stanford Earth; and Wendy Mao (BS, PhD geophysics, 2005), the first Asian woman to attain tenure at Stanford Earth.

Numbers are catching up

The percentage of women earning Earth science PhDs has risen steadily in recent years, with the number of women earning ocean science PhDs outpacing the number of men since 2009. Between 2006 and 2016, women geoscience faculty  in the U.S. increased from 14% to 20%, showing some progress. At Stanford Earth , the gender divide depends on one’s role: In 2020-21, women made up 66% of undergrads, 51% of grad students, 32% of postdoctoral scholars, 38% of professoriate faculty, and 63% of staff.

Across academia in the United States, this increase has not been equally spread among women of underrepresented backgrounds. Women of color (in this case, Indigenous, Black, and Latinx) remain especially underrepresented and make up only 330, or 1.46%, of all geoscience doctorates awarded in a 40-year period, between 1973 and 2016. In another study of 557 women scientists from ethnic minority groups in the U.S. , two-thirds felt pressure to continually prove themselves beyond what was asked of white colleagues. Of Black female respondents to the same study, 48% said they’d been mistaken for caretakers or administrative staff.

How bias affects performance

As in other fields, women in the geosciences routinely face more challenges in career advancement than their male peers. Women are more likely to experience unconscious bias, which will impact important steps like admission or hires, lead to lower salaries and worse performance reviews, and result in fewer mentorship opportunities. Women from ethnic minority backgrounds are the least likely to be offered speaking opportunities at science conferences.

This bias bleeds into paper publishing, one measure of academic success. Men and women who produce single-author papers are as likely as each other to receive tenure ; however, women who co-author more papers are less likely to be given tenure than men who do the same. Unsurprisingly, representation of female first authors increases 33% when double-blind review of manuscripts was used , which shows that when readers don’t know the author’s gender, papers perform better.

If a woman chooses to have a family, she may experience further difficulty: Women with children are significantly less likely to enter tenure-track positions than men with children are because women often bear disproportionate familial caregiving responsibilities and workplaces don’t always offer flexible family-friendly policies.

Sexand gender-based harassment

Some Earth science fields, notably geology, have been male-dominated fields for much of their history and that is reflected in the social norms of the field. Geology terms based on the human body are common - terms range from soil being fertile or barren, glaciers going through binge-purge cycles, and cruder sexualized metaphors - and when misappropriated, can create a culture where sexualized language in the workplace is normalized.

In any field or industry, women can face sexual harassment and assault. The potential for sexual harassment is especially concerning in the geosciences, where women may have field research requirements that put them in isolated situations with male colleagues. In a survey of 666 cross-disciplinary field scientists, . Women from this study were 3.5 times more likely to have experienced harassment than men, and were primarily harassed and assaulted by superiors.

It’s worth noting that this inappropriate behavior can include outright sexual harassment and assault, in addition to gender-based harassment in the form of comments, jokes, gestures, insults, misgendering, etc. Sexual and gender harassment can be even more challenging for those whose identities as women intersect with other underrepresented aspects of their identity , including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, nation of origin, and ability, and can be applied to individuals of any gender identity. When individuals do experience sexor gender-based harassment, they often don’t report it. According to the Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) , only 13% of female survey respondents said they reported harassment and only 7% of women who were sexually assaulted formally came forward.

Shifting to a culture of inclusivity

Studies have shown that undergraduate women with access to same-gender faculty mentoring networks are more likely to identify as scientists and have greater intent to pursue the geosciences. Stanford Earth’s own Margot Gerritsen , professor of energy resources engineering, saw a need for greater influence of women in STEM, so she created an international network of data science conferences called the Women in Data Science (WiDS) conference.

To enforce consequences for harassment, in 2017 the American Geophysical Union reclassified harassment as a form of scientific misconduct , on par with plagiarism and data fabrication. The National Science Foundation requires applicants’ institutions to disclose the results of any harassment cases filed against them   when reviewing them for funding. At Stanford Earth , we’re committed to recognizing and eliminating sexual harassment culture in our own community.

Globally, women make up 80% of people who are displaced by climate change and are often women of color living in the global south. In order to bring the best minds to innovate sustainability and climate solutions, it’s imperative to apply an intersectional lens to our work toward gender parity in the geosciences to include those whose experiences with discrimination are made worse on the additional basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, life stage, and beyond.

Stanford Earth recently transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, six Stanford Earth community members talk about how their identities as women have informed and impacted their careers. Professor Elizabeth Miller , associate professor Jane Willenbring , PhD students Fola Ayoola , Lauren Abrahams , and Caroline Ferguson , and BS student Kelly Dunn discuss their hopes for the future of diversity and inclusion in the geosciences.

How would you describe your gender identity?

DUNN:  I am a Taiwanese American female.

AYOOLA:  I identify as a dark-skin Black African (Yorùbá) woman.

WILLENBRING:  I’m a white woman.

ABRAHAMS:  I am a bi-racial Jewish Mexican American female.

MILLER:  I grew up in Brazil until I went to college and have dual citizenship. I was married and have two grown sons 30 and 34 years old who are named after mountains in Nevada where I worked: Egan and Wheeler after the Egan Range near Ely, Nevada, and Wheeler Peak in the Great Basin National Park.

FERGUSON:  There are so many intersections of identity that inform how I move in the world. Some of the most salient to my work are white, American, cisgender woman.

Share a formative experience related to your gender identity.

MILLER:  In my 40-plus years at Stanford, a lot has changed in a good way. When I had my children, there was no maternity leave except going on disability. When I gave birth to Egan, I was back teaching just three days later. Child care is as difficult as it was then - Stanford needs to do a better job of that. I had to use all of my sabbaticals for "personal" reasons.

ABRAHAMS:  As early as 13, I was made known that I was a girl and therefore different. I was ridiculed and bullied. At one point, I was told I would never be a real girl if I liked math. In high school, I took an engineering elective where I was one of two girls in the class of 30. I remember questioning what I was doing there. When our engineering teacher Mrs. Custable walked in, she immediately demanded respect. The boys in class would prank and tease her harshly, but every day she would come in seemly unfazed by the past and try her best to reach us. Although I did not know it at the time, she strengthened my confidence and presence in the classroom, was my first exposure to engineering and graduate studies, and showed me I could be a girl and a leader in any room.

AYOOLA:  Until the fall of 2017 when I moved here for grad school, I lived in the most populous Black nation - Nigeria. I walked through life with my experiences shaped mostly by my culture as Yorùbá, my nationality as Nigerian, and most significantly my being a cis-het woman in conservative, male-supremacist spaces. Since then, I’ve been awakened to the Black element of my identity, and of course the intersection of all of these make me who I am, so it’s hard to separate the significance of each individually.

WILLENBRING:  I filed a Title IX complaint of sexual harassment against my former master’s advisor from Boston University. Most of the harassment occurred when we were in Antarctica during a field expedition in the deep field in the Dry Valleys in 1999-2000. My complaint was leaked to Science and that article received extensive media attention because it was released the day after the New York Times story of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual assault and harassment and the #MeToo movement. It turned out well in some ways. The case led to the renaming of an Antarctic glacier previously named after my advisor and he was fired from Boston University. Fortunately, the publicity around my case also contributed to the creation of new policies within professional societies like the Geological Society of America around fellowship and medal award procedures, and to new U.S. National Science Foundation funding policies. Now, if someone has had a Title IX finding against them, NSF can take that into account when deciding on future funding. Unfortunately, it was an excruciatingly long process and I was harassed, received hate mail and even a death threat after reporting and became a reluctant quasi-expert on the perverse (dis)incentives in academia around reporting harassment. 

Do you feel like you see representations of people like yourself in your field?

Lauren Abrahams is a fourth-year PhD candidate in Geophysics who uses computer simulations (modeling) and analytical solutions to study natural hazards and assess potential risks. She is also a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow , a Stanford Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence (DARE) Fellow , a Stanford Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) Doctoral Fellow , and a former SURGE intern in 2016. In winter quarter of 2020 and 2021, she was a co-instructor for  Diversity and Inclusion in the Geosciences (DIG, EARTH 203) .

ABRAHAMS:  As a whole, in the geosciences, the gender gap has closed considerably. At conferences, it is harder to come by more tenured women to serve as role models, but I do see an uprise of early-career women who are doing amazing and inspiring work in my subdiscipline. However, in contrast, Black, Hispanic, and Native American women have extremely low representation, making up 1.46% of PhDs in geosciences in the last 40 years.

DUNN:  No, I don’t feel particularly well represented in my field of study. This lack of representation includes but is not limited to my ethnicity, gender, and values. That said, I do think representation, particularly when considering gender, is improving. Just recently, one of my departments had three new female hires.

MILLER:  For my age, women are definitely a minority. It was just a stroke of luck given the rate of women hires in our department (Geological Sciences) that Gail Mahood was a colleague when I started around 1980, as well as Rosemary Knight in Geophysics. They were some of my only female colleagues until we hired Wendy Mao, Kate Maher, and Jessica Warren. Currently the Department of Geological Sciences has five women faculty.

FERGUSON:  Yes, women who look like me are highly represented in my specific field of study, marine social science. I am lucky to have a number of wonderful women mentors, including my PhD advisor. Yet we are lacking diversity along many axes and intersections of identity. As a scholar working in Oceania, I am particularly passionate about increasing representation of scholars native to Oceania, who are too often treated as research subjects or given token representation on research teams. This quarter, I’m working with Palauan and Stanford educators to teach a class, Decolonizing Social Science Methods, for Palauan students, which has been generously funded by the Stanford Woods Institute Environmental Ventures Project program. Our goal is to uplift young Palauan voices and provide pathways for them to academia while decolonizing the social science research process.

WILLENBRING:  In my undergraduate career, I didn’t have a single female professor in geology, chemistry, physics, biology, math, anthropology or psychology though I heard they existed, at least outside of the geology department! My first female professor at university was actually a Black, humanities professor named Dr. Catherine Cater. She was a polymath and understood the world around her on a fundamental level. Though my graduate advisors and formal mentors have all been white men, my strategy has been to gather a sort of constellation of mentors-each a star who shines in some way that I want to emulate. Some stars are my students, faculty colleagues, folks in technical or staff roles, a former AGU president, women in the Earth Science Women’s Network. I’ll take any and all mentors that I can get!

AYOOLA:  I have had the honor of learning and working with some of the most brilliant scholars in the world, who happen to be women. While working in upstream oil/gas and manufacturing, I was often the only female-identifying person in the room. There was a time while working on an oil production platform that they didn’t even offer inclusive restroom facilities because female representation was so low in that workplace. While the picture is perhaps better here at Stanford Earth with female scholars being well represented, I often still feel that same sense of solus, being the only Black woman and Black person more broadly in most spaces. There is a lot of work yet still to be done in the Earth sciences to include more people of color.

How does your identity intersect with your research, your workplace, your field?

WILLENBRING:  I never wanted to be a women-in-STEM activist. Having a baby years ago in my second year on the tenure track at an Ivy League school was really life-altering, and I was struck by how different academic life is for professors who are not in an overrepresented group. For example, I was told that taking maternity leave would hurt my chances of getting tenure, so I ended up teaching seven days after giving birth. Days later, I attended a hiring committee meeting on discrimination and bias in faculty hiring procedures. Even though I had a 10-day-old baby, I showed up and was shocked that the only two other people on the committee who came to the training were the women on the committee. The three men on the committee were too busy! Despite the harassment I experienced as a graduate student, it wasn’t until my 3-year-old daughter told me she wanted to be a scientist like me that I decided that I wanted to try to make science a more welcoming community for everyone and I wrote my Title IX complaint that night.

FERGUSON:  In part because fisheries science has historically been done mainly by men, the roles of women in fisheries have been largely ignored, and feminist frameworks have rarely been applied to questions of fisheries sustainability and equity. That is the focus of my research and my opportunity to make a novel contribution to the field. I’ve always been interested in blind spots like these: What can I see through my lens that others have missed? Unfortunately, fisheries science is full of such blind spots due in part to the lack of diversity in who is doing the science. By bringing more folks to the table, we can generate new and better solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing our oceans.

AYOOLA:  My research and work revolve around energy and socioeconomic equity. A lot of what motivates the work that I currently do is how I have experienced life. It’s hard - read impossible - to work on equitable energy transitions and energy access, particularly in the developing world, and ignore the role of the women in these communities in the process. It’s also hard to focus fully on your work as a woman in STEM when you’re dealing with all the extra baggage - sexual harassment and impropriety, microaggressions and condescension, among others. The problem isn’t limited to academia but we certainly are not any more progressive or evolved. We need to acknowledge that to make a change.

DUNN:  I’d like to say that studying Earth subjects satisfies me entirely and that as a consequence of it, I hardly think about the gender dynamics of the environments I’m in. However, that just isn’t true. I’ve realized how important it is to see and converse with female environmental scientists. The few that do exist have greatly impacted me.

MILLER:  It’s essential to mention how important the Stanford Geological Survey was to my scientific development and to who I became as an Earth scientist. The "field" is where we learn how Earth works. I was the first woman to direct this program in Stanford’s history - this was one of the best aspects of my career at Stanford, and the one I am the most grateful for. I do hope that over the years I was a good example to all the women in these classes and showed them how they could achieve the same. I am quite lucky to have had fantastic mentors, although none of them were women. I’ve also been able to work in the field in Russia’s far east and the Arctic, and to achieve leadership positions for many of these expeditions, but I know it isn’t like that for all women geoscientists. Most expedition leaders to remote frontier regions have traditionally been male, but somehow in the Arctic there have been quite a few women in charge of science and expeditions. I hope that our work and leadership provides a great example to future researchers and that the trend continues elsewhere too.

Why do we need to make space to discuss identities in the workplace?

AYOOLA:  I think a diversity of perspective is essential to doing good science; humans after all are diverse, and we as scientists look to maximize our impact. However, a diversity of perspective requires a diversity of experience, which you can only really get from a diversity of people. I want to encourage those, especially women, looking to work in this field to pursue their goals and dreams unabashedly and unapologetically. There’s also power in numbers, power to shape the narrative.

WILLENBRING:  One result often mentioned is that more diversity in teams and organizations leads to better outcomes, ideas, policies and productivity. I consider myself pragmatic so that argument appeals to me on some level. But ultimately for me, harassment and bullying are unethical, and exclusion and discrimination are unfair. If I don’t acknowledge my identity or the identity of others: I will miss issues related to problematic behavior that targets or favors certain groups; I might not address confirmation bias in my mentoring approach (i.e. what worked for me might not work for our students who have a different identity); I might send my students and postdocs into unsafe field environments. I actually need to reckon with identity to do my job as a group leader and faculty member.   

DUNN:  Those of you reading, women especially, might be wondering: What difference will it make if we talk about these things? I’ll tell you: These disparities you experience are not as clear for everyone else as they are for you. Some people just haven’t had to grapple with these ideas and, consequently, are completely oblivious to them. While it may take more labor on your behalf, having these discussions to find common understanding between these diverse groups can lend themselves to more solutions, and ease the amount of effort that future generations would have to invest.

ABRAHAMS:  Yes, encouraging people to talk about identity candidly will strengthen our ties to each other. We need to work toward creating inclusive spaces where no one needs to leave their identity at the door. This will lead to better collaboration, better understanding, and better science. Although it can be daunting, learning and growing are about showing up and taking space. My advice to students is that if you already knew everything, you would not be a student; a student is someone eager to learn, work hard, grow, and explore.

FERGUSON:  It is so critical that we talk not only about gender equity but also about equity across many dimensions and intersections of identity. We as a scientific community are missing out by not including and uplifting diverse voices and ideas. We are also causing harm when we ignore the exclusion and even abuse experienced by many scholars that perpetuate a white supremacist and patriarchal system. I’m encouraged by recent efforts at Stanford Earth to increase diversity in our graduate study body and faculty, and I hope to see conversations continue about how we can build a more just and inclusive school.

This story is part of the #StanfordEarthCelebrates series hosted by Stanford Earth Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.  Continue to read the rest of the collection here.  

Elenita Makani Nicholas

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences
elenitanicholas@stanford.edu

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