Reflections on Being a Woman Scientist

by |March 8, 2018

At the lip of Halema’uma’u crater, volcanologist Einat Lev of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory prepares to study the lava lake, some 300 feet below. (Courtesy Matt Patrick, USGS)

Science is not a field where women have traditionally “belonged.” The good news is: that’s changing. But the bad news is that there’s still a huge gender gap; although women make up 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, they hold less than 25 percent of the jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Around the world, only about 30 percent of researchers are women. That leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Here on State of the Planet, we’re proud to highlight the work of the Earth Institute’s incredible female scholars and scientists every day. Today, for International Women’s Day, we’ve asked a few of them to reflect on what it means to be a woman in science. As you’ll read and watch below, each one has her own perspective on the challenges that women encounter in STEM, and how to press for greater equality in the future.

Suzana Camargo

portrait of suzana camargo

Suzana Camargo studies hurricanes at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She is also the executive director of Columbia’s Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

I grew up in Brazil and there International Women’s Day is a big deal. Women congratulate each other, send messages, etc. So I’m always very conscious of it. It’s important to celebrate women, all types of women.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Press for Progress.” What signs of progress are you seeing in your field, and what’s left to be done?

There is more awareness from men about women’s issues in science. But it is clear that a lot still needs to be done to make possible for more women to have success in science.

Which women inspire you?

I am always attracted to the pioneers in each field. In tropical meteorology, an amazing trailblazer was Joanne Simpson. She had a very important role in shaping the understanding of clouds and hurricanes.

What’s your advice for other women who want to enter your field?

Find mentors to talk to, people who you can discuss all issues in your professional and personal life. It is very enlightening to hear others’ experience.

Paulina Concha Larrauri

Paulina Concha Larrauri

Paulina Concha Larrauri, an environmental engineer at the Columbia Water Center, stands on top of the water supply of Dilla, Ethiopia.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

For me it is a day to remember all the incredible women who have worked to open new doors for others, who have set an example, who lead and inspire other girls to reach their full potentials.

What signs of progress are you seeing in your field, and what’s still left to be done?

I have never felt discriminated against for being a woman in my career. I feel like if I want to do something I can do it and it is entirely up to me how far I go. I think it wasn’t the same for other generations before me, but thanks to the people who decided to “press,” I can now say that being a woman in my field has never felt different than just being a human. In terms of what needs to be done, I think women who decide to have kids still have some barriers; there aren’t yet many avenues to help women (or men) to be able to leave work for a period of time and return later in life, or pursue part-time options, without sacrificing career advancement.

Which women inspire you?

There are different aspects that inspire me. The passion for knowledge of Marie Curie, who worked all her life doing things that “were not for women” at the time, and Sylvia Earle’s work on protecting the oceans. Both of them were “the first woman to…”. But also the care, love, and selflessness of women like my mother who decided to stay at home and take the best care of us but gave us freedom to do what we wanted. I respect them equally, as long as what they do is because they want to, and not because it was their “role”.

What’s your advice for other women who want to enter your field?

Work hard. You’ll be measured based on your skills and the outcomes of your work, because thanks to the women before us, we don’t have to feel we are treated differently for being women anymore.

Michelle Ho

michelle ho

Michelle Ho studies hydroclimatic variability and water resource risk analysis. She is affiliated with the Columbia Water Center.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

It would be great in the future if we didn’t need a day like this to highlight that there are still gaps between men and women in the workplace, even once factors such as time off work to care for family have been accounted for. That is, it would be great when these issues no longer exist.

What signs of progress are you seeing in your field, and what’s still left to be done?

I’m hopeful that the gradual change in who we see as “capable” or holding expertise will change the perceptions of who can be a good scientist. I have seen evidence of such an effort happening from primary schools through to international conferences. I was involved in “Skype a Scientist” in 2017, where primary school students were given the chance to ask a scientist questions and potentially change their views of what a scientist looked like—not necessarily an old, Caucasian man—and what scientists do. At conferences, I am seeing more women, particularly young women, organizing sessions, discussions, shaping the conversation of science, and making significant contributions. There are still often discussion panels where not a single women is present even though there are now plenty of women with suitable levels of expertise whose voices should be heard, but I’m confident that this will change with time.

Which women inspire you?

All the women in the Columbia Water Center and those I met through the America’s Water project. The level of professionalism, creativity, efficiency, and plain kindness and encouragement are traits that everyone should aspire to.

What’s your advice for other women who want to enter your field?

Seek out teams that share your values; ignore the naysayers (or give them the benefit of doubt that they’re having a bad day).

Einat Lev

einat lev and a drone

Einat Lev uses drones to study volcanoes. She is a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

It reminds me that on some basic level, all the women in the world are connected, sharing some fundamental challenges and joys. It is a reminder to enjoy being a woman.

What signs of progress are you seeing in your field, and what’s still left to be done?

As in many fields right now, this is a time of increased awareness. There is much more attention to and acceptance of the facts that some people, often men, are abusing the system and their power over others, often women. My field is no exception. I have been sad, but not terribly surprised, to learn about cases of harassment. But things are now out in the open, and hopefully victims will feel less alone and will be empowered to demand action, now that patterns of abuse and systematic problems are so clear. As for what needs to be done, I think there is a lot more to do as a society to redefine the expectations from men and from women to be more balanced and more flexible.

Which women inspire you?

I’m inspired by the wave of new women joining politics, running for office in their local communities, cities, states. Women who never would have imagined running for office are saying that “Time is Up” and that they will be the change they want to see in the world. I’m super impressed and wish them success!

What’s your advice for other women who want to enter your field?

It is a wonderful field and anyone who loves science and loves the Earth, no matter their gender, race, or any other definition, should join. Do stand up for yourself, ask for stuff you need, point out when there is bias. Push to level the playing field, and by all means, come out and play!

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