Women in STEM tell stories of obstacles

By Steven Adamo 

A panel of women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields shared their experiences with sexism at the Celebrating Equity: Women in STEM panel on Thursday.

Panelist Tama Hasson, Ph.D., who works with undergraduates in research, recalled a moment in college when a young man asked if she needed to see his notes.

“Just because I am a girl doesn’t mean I’m not smarter than you are,” Hasson said.

According to the Higher Education Research Institute at University of California, Los Angeles, fourth-grade boys and girls report similar rates of interest in science.

In college, however, only 17 percent of women prefer studies in a STEM field compared to 32 percent of men.

Hasson and other women quit their University of California, San Diego faculty positions to work at UCLA after repeatedly being dismissed and talked over.

“It was an exodus of the extra X chromosomes leaving the Y’s behind,” Hasson said. Most of the panel had a negative experience to share. “In Russia, there’s no such thing as equal opportunity,” Alena Ananyeva, Ph.D., and research specialist at Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Pasadena, said.

When she was in graduate school, her professor introduced her to a visiting professor from Moscow.

When her professor explained that she was working toward a doctorate in physics, the visiting professor smiled, then replied “that is great because I’m actually looking for a secretary.”

“This professor, who works with students and is a big part of society, was OK to make this joke and nobody would judge him,” Ananyeva said.

Melody Araya, Master of Science, works on software that helps scientists at LIGO collaborate securely from one part of the world to another.

She described how she was treated differently in school for being a woman. “When I brought up an idea, it was always questioned. But if the same idea was brought up by a man, it was ‘Oh, that’s a great idea,’” Araya said.

Dawn Digrius, Ph.D., panelist and senior project manager for California State Polytechnic, Pomona shared one example of how she felt dismissed during class: “One professor in class said There are two types of archeologists: hairy chested and hairy chinned,’ and all of my female peers asked ‘Where do we fit?’”

“One of the things we all experienced as women in the field is the fact that we have to work harder, we have to sweat more and we had to endure better,” Digrius said.

But according to Hasson, there are signs that it is getting better.

“Every hire in the life sciences division since I’ve been at UCLA has been either a woman, a minority or a minority woman. Diversity is a huge part of what our campus is trying to do to make our faculty reflect our student body,” Hasson said.

Ananyeva said she is treated like an equal member of her group at LIGO.

“This is a huge contrast between the cultures of Russia and the United States,” Ananyeva said.

At LIGO, Ananyeva and Araya collaborate with scientists worldwide to prove Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. On September 14, 2015, gravitational waves were detected for the first time using LIGO’s technology, which measures the ripples of space-time caused by black holes or supernovas.

“I don’t want to see the examples that I’ve experienced, and some of the examples you’ve been hearing, to happen continuously. We want that to be something that happened in the past,” Digrius said. “We need you, because in order to change things at an institutional level, you all have to persist and push for these changes.”

For more information on the ELAC STEM Program, contact Armando M. Rivera, Ph.D., dean of STEM at (323) 780-6730

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