“What do you do about the loneliness?”
That was the undergraduate woman's question.
She continued, “The further I get in my studies — my major is math — the fewer women there are.”
The three panelists looked at each other, nodded, and one answered, “Well, that is the reality, isn’t it?”
And so began the Q & A time at the seminar “Women in Academia: Finding Life in the University,” sponsored by Women in the Academy and Professions (WAP). Providentially, a faculty woman in math was in the audience and after the seminar she quickly approached the questioner.
Connecting women like this is at the heart of what WAP does, whether at a conference or through email or Skype. These connections help women to support and encourage one another on their journeys.
Connections are especially critical in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields where there are significantly fewer women studying, teaching, and working. Stories abound about women who find themselves lonely, discriminated against, and second-guessing their abilities, their passions, and their callings.
In “I Didn’t Want to Lean Out: Why I Left, How I Left, and What It Would Have Taken to Keep Me in STEM,” Frances Hocutt tells her discouraging story. Stories like hers leave us wondering how she (or women in similar situations) might be served by a robust Christian community that affirms and advocates for her (or them) in tough environments. How many other Franceses are there whose stories we haven’t yet heard?
Lynn Billman, in her article “Christian Women in STEM Are a Vulnerable Minority," writes, “Over the past few years I have followed the HuffPost pages that address the gender gap in STEM and the challenges that women face. Those challenges are often greater for women who identify themselves as Christians. They have another strike against them: the perceived conflict between Christianity and science. How widespread is this perception? It is expressed by atheists who cast Christians as intellectual infants who trust in fairy tales, and it is perpetuated by Young Earth Creationists who disdain the findings of solid science. Where does a Christian woman scientist find her place in this confusing landscape?”
As noted by the math student, the further women get in STEM coursework, the fewer female colleagues they observe. It’s an issue for undergrad juniors and seniors as well as graduate students and faculty. Some graduate students and faculty women discover they are alone as women in their labs or departments.
If we believe that God has gifted many women with both the ability and the desire to invest their lives for the sake of Jesus in a STEM field, and that the university (and wider culture) will be well served if they do, how can our Christian communities be places of encouragement and empowerment? How can we provide some of the support they need to stick it out in these disciplines? Here are some of the things WAP is doing on campus:
- Encouraging our colleagues to identify women in STEM majors and make time to meet with them individually. We have found that asking even simple questions about their experiences as women makes a difference:
As a woman in physics, do you find yourself in the minority in your classes?
How does that feel?
Does it impact the way you conduct yourself in class?
Have you felt that your professors or peers treat you differently?
- Creating safe spaces for women in STEM programs to get together. We are facilitating gatherings not only on campus, but also online and at InterVarsity summer Faculty Camps. Some gatherings that WAP hosted last summer at the Midwest Faculty Camp turned into a Facebook group to continue the community and conversations started in person. Consider joining us next summer at camp!
- Connecting women — especially those considering academic careers — to one another and to resources such as the Emerging Scholars Network, The Well, and Christian Women in Science.
- Helping men in Christian communities understand the issues and learn to advocate for their sisters.
These are big issues. Please don’t hesitate to ask us for assistance. Would it serve you and your Christian women colleagues if we showed up on your campus and hosted a gathering? Would it help if we came to your campus as a catalyst to kick off a regular gathering of Christian women scholars? Invite WAP to to your campus. We would love to help you serve the STEM sisters there.
The vision of Women in the Academy and Professions is to see women flourishing in their God-given callings and living as a redeeming influence in the academy and beyond. We believe that when they do, our campus fellowships prosper, our universities prosper, the Church prospers, our culture prospers, and God is honored.
Do you have other ideas for how we can serve women in STEM? We’d love to hear! Leave ideas for us in the comments section.