In a nation in which women constitute half of the work force and earn 60 percent of bachelor's degrees overall, only a quarter of the professional science corps is composed of women, according to the New York Times.
A large role in that absence of women in the scientific field stems from gender stereotypes, Jeffrey Kovac, a chemistry professor and director of College Scholars, said.
"Growing up in the '50s and '60s there was this attitude among teachers and parents that girls just didn't do stuff like that," Kovac said. "Girls play with dolls, not erector sets, chemistry sets or radios. I think that's starting to change now."
Imposter syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people don't believe they deserve their success or have earned it upon their own merit, can be a result of these constricting gender stereotypes.
Melissa Lee, a junior in College Scholars and a columnist for The Daily Beacon, has experienced these stereotypes firsthand.
"My mom is quite conservative and doesn't really think research and academia is a good field for raising a family," Lee said.
Lee is currently researching microRNA regulation of memory formation at the University of Zurich in Switzerland with the ultimate goal of obtaining a career in neuroscience. The lack of prominent female scientists is another issue that could lead to fewer women pursuing scientific careers.
"It's hard to imagine yourself doing something if you don't know anybody like you who does it," Kovac said. "If you're a woman and you've never met a woman physicist, you don't have anything to identify with."
Lee, admittedly lucky in this respect, has not felt the lack of female role models, and attributes much of her success to their guidance.
“Dr. Prosser has been a huge mentor to me,” Lee said. “I can’t really overstate how helpful it’s been to me to have such a great example of a successful woman in my field right in front of me. Especially when I’ve been discouraged because people like my mom don’t think this is what I should be doing; it’s been hugely inspiring to just be able to see what she’s done.”
Traditionally the stay-at-home caregivers of their children — women who pursue high-power careers face the challenge of balancing family with work.
“There was a mentality among male faculty in the ‘70s not that women were inferior,” Kovac said, “but that they weren’t necessarily in it for the long haul, and that they would get married, have children and drop out of their profession — that they weren’t going to be as serious.”
Professions involving scientific research are time-consuming, a fact that can make handling a family and long hours in the lab difficult.
“My wife and I are negotiating a two-career family, and it’s not easy,” Kovac said. “So if you’re a woman and you want to be a scientist or a professional in general, you’ve got to be married to the right guy if you want to have a family.”
While societal perception of female capabilities is slowly changing, certain specific policy changes can speed up the process.“The situation for women will only change if we make it possible for women to succeed,” Kovac said. “Some of that is having humane HR practices which involve appropriate maternity leave, the tenure clock and easily affordable and available daycare.
“There needs to be a culture change in the way we hire and the environment that we create.”
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employment practices in Tennessee currently allow for 12 weeks of unpaid leave with continued health benefits. As of 2010, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not provide paid leave for mothers, according to the Huffington Post.
Support at the collegiate level can be coupled with assistance for employed female scientists to increase the presence of women in science.Initiatives at UT, such as Lean In, are aimed at creating support groups for prospective female scientists.
Lean In, a national program that uses small peer groups to encourage women to lean into their ambitions, was established at UT this year to encourge women who desire careers in the fields of electrical engineering and computer science. Denise Koessler, university ambassador for EECS and computer science Ph.D. candidate, said equal employment opportunities for males and females are essential in today’s society.
“I am not advocating for 50 percent of the jobs in science to go to women because we are women,” Koessler said. “I am advocating for the awareness that there exist societal barriers, which make technical jobs easier to obtain for men. The solution here is that everyone who wants to pursue a scientific or technical career can sit at the table to get that career. The problem is that industrial barriers and academic barriers prevent women from even being eligible or heard and therefore never sit at the table in the first place.”
Sherry Ma, junior in electrical engineering, said she agrees that equality and changing the stigma on female roles are crucial.
“If a woman has interests in science and she is willing to spend time to investigate it, she will absolutely do as well as a gifted man,” Ma said. “As long as you have interests and dreams, you can follow your heart and do a good job in any field of study.”