Why Sigma Xi Needed to Participate in Women’s History Month

by Heather Thorstensen | May 15, 2015

Shirley Ann Jackson quote box“Sigma Xi supports women in STEM”—that was the tagline you saw, placed beneath quotes from six Sigma Xi female members, on the Society’s social media accounts in March. Why did the Society need to participate in Women’s History Month? 

A pillar of Sigma Xi’s culture is diversity. The Society has recruited women to become members since its very beginning, dating back to the 1880s. That’s more than 30 years before American women could vote. Women, and other underrepresented minority groups, bring their unique backgrounds and perspectives to scientific questions.Different perspectives can lead to new theories and new results

We know there is a gender gap in all of science and engineering. In 2013, women held 46 percent of all U.S. occupations but were in only 29 percent of the science and engineering jobs. To address this, Sigma Xi’s magazine, American Scientist, has published multiple articles about the issue. 

Despite the fact that Sigma Xi supports diversity, and we’ve been talking about it, we still observe a gender gap in our own membership. Approximately 25 percent of Sigma Xi’s active members are women. 

We participated in Women’s History Month, a time to honor the contributions women have made to society, to help spread the word that women not only belong in science and technology, but are desperately needed. And, we want girls to see these women in STEM so more can begin to see themselves there, too. 

We asked these six female members to share their career experiences, explain why they love science, and share their thoughts on being a woman in their field. You can read their responses on our Women in STEM page.  

While I was working on this project, I was contacted by one of our participating members’ staff writers. She told me that when she was growing up, people said “women don’t do science.” Separately, in her responses, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a life member of Sigma Xi, addressed this head-on. She said, “Young women are not encouraged sufficiently to pursue scientific careers; sometimes they actively are discouraged.” 

There are reasons for optimism. Despite gross underrepresentation in the fields of computer and math science (25.4 percent in 2013), engineering (14.8 percent), and physics and astronomy (11.8 percent), women in the U.S. dominate certain scientific career paths, like psychology (73.8 percent). Understanding why women are more prevalent in certain fields may lead to programs that achieve greater representation in others.

The recent focus that has been put on this problem suggests that solutions may be on the horizon. Research has identified biases that women encounter in STEM. Reports such as Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering found women were more likely to stay in their jobs if they have supportive supervisors and colleagues as well as clear paths for advancement, among other things. We need more actionable recommendations like this to achieve institutional change. Who is going to do it? It will be a team effort, and Sigma Xi will continue to do our part. 

Heather Thorstensen is manager of communications for Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. 

Additional reading:

Diversity in STEM: What It Is and Why It Matters” By Kenneth Gibbs Jr. 

What is Gendered Innovations?” Schiebinger, L., Klinge, I., Sánchez de Madariaga, I., Schraudner, M., and Stefanick, M. (Eds.) (2011-2013). Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment (genderedinnovations.stanford.edu).

comments powered by Disqus

Blog Categories