USF took time to celebrate women who entered the male-dominated fields of math and science last Thursday, offering inspiration for the next generation of female scientists.
It was a room full of women, with a few men sprinkled in the crowded McLaren Hall as well. Sitting on the panel in the front of the room were five female scientists: two undergraduate science students and three professional scientists and mathematicians. A packed crowd of university and high school students listened intently to learn more about the role of women in science.
“Historically, women have been underrepresented in all science fields,” said junior Bethany Goodrich as she introduced the event. “Men and women are equal, but they offer very different perspectives.”
The scene at the panel, From Classroom to Career: Success Stories of Women in Science and Technology, held last Thursday, looked nothing like the picture painted by national statistics. As Goodrich noted, even though women earn the majority of bachelors degrees overall, they fall behind men in both the number of science degrees earned and the number of careers held in the sciences. Most would consider this figure problematic.
The USF College of Arts and Sciences is employing a number of methods to increase female enrollment in the sciences, including hiring more female professors and hosting events like the one last Thursday.
This effort began 45 years ago, when the university hired its first female professor in mathematics, Millianne Lehmann. Lehmann, who came to speak on the Women in Science panel, recalled, “When I joined the faculty in 1965, I was entering a world of men. I had no social peers.”
Lehmann served as the only female mathematics professor until 2004, when she retired. She said of her gender, “It turned out to be no problem at all. At no time did I feel hindered by my gender.” Lehmann ended up serving as the first female chair of USF’s mathematics department, paving the way for women to enter the math and science fields.
But not all women on the panel viewed their gender as a non-issue in their careers. When Marjorie Balazs attended college in the 1950’s, she had a male chemistry professor tell her, “You’d might as well stop now,” implying that, as a woman, she would never make it far in science.
Defying his projection, Balazs went on to have an a prosperous career, founding Balazs Analytical and becoming the first female CEO in the semiconductor industry.
The words of discouragement Balazs heard from her professor did not ultimately hold her back. “As a person who faced a lot of adversity and had people tell me I couldn’t do it, I really challenge you to believe in yourselves,” she told the audience.
The panel was sponsored by the Women in Science club, an undergraduate organization that encourages young women to pursue careers in the traditionally male-dominated fields.
Noelle Brodeur, junior biology major and Women in Science club president, has worked with her group to encourage other young women to go into science-related careers. Inviting Bay Area high school girls to watch the speakers on the panel and become inspired was part of that mission.
Brodeur explained the personal importance of having strong female role models in science, especially at her university. “Seeing so many successful female science faculty at USF definitely makes my future dreams seem more tangible,” she said. “And it helps make the difficulties of being a biology major seem as if they will pay off in the long run.”
In recent years, USF has improved its faculty gender ratios significantly, with female faculty now making up 25-percent of the total in the math, science and computer science majors according to an article in the Fall 2009 issue of USF Magazine. Increasing the number of women professors, in theory, will encourage more female students to enroll in the majors.
For Lehmann, this could not be more true. It was a female high school teacher who ultimately inspired her to study mathematics and go on to teach. All these years later, she remembered fondly, “It is the memory of her that helped me to succeed in my career at USF.”
Dr. Margaret Tempero, a USF alumna, also spoke at the panel. Tempero said she kind of stumbled into a career in sciences when she began working at a hospital and wanted to get her medical degree so she could understand what was going on. She emphasized being open to opportunities to find the right career. “You may not understand your mission in life now,” she told the crowd, “But you have one.” Tempero is now the Deputy Director of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCSF.
Brodeur was pleased with the outcome of the panel. She said, “One of the main points I took away from the event was how lively and happy those women seemed. When I see women like that, it makes me so excited to find a career I am passionate about.”