The preview video for "NOVA: Picture a Scientist," which WOUB-TV Wednesday, April 14 at 9 p.m. ET.

Dr. Nancy Sandler and PhD Student Laura Herzog Share Experiences As Women in STEM

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An article published by the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this year found that while some 48 percent of the total workforce in the nation is made up of women, only 27 percent of U.S. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) occupations are held by women. While these numbers indicate a serious shift since the numbers collected in 1970 (women making up only 38 percent of the total U.S. workforce and only eight percent of STEM), they still raise questions about the kinds of barriers women continue to face in fields historically dominated by men.

This topic, told through the voices of female scientists, is explored at length by NOVA: Picture A Scientist, a documentary that WOUB-TV will air Wednesday, April 14 at 9 p.m. ET.


WOUB Culture spoke to two Ohio University affiliated female scientists, Dr. Nancy Sandler and fourth year physics PhD student Laura Herzog, about their experiences as women in STEM.

Sandler, a theoretical condensed matter physicist and professor in Ohio University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said that the issue concerning the lack of women in physics in particular starts with the presumption that women just aren’t as good at math as men.

“This is why, when I introduce myself to new graduate students, I emphasize how much I use my creativity in my work – because while I use math, math is really a just a tool. Much like when you are cooking, you can have the best cooking utensils, the best cooking tools in the world, and those will help you be a better chef, but there is more involved in being a great chef than just having great tools. You can be very good at math, but that will not make you a good scientist,” said Sandler. “From a very early age, women are told that we are not so good at math. And as a consequence, that we will not be good at physics. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy; because if you tell me that I’m not supposed to be good at math, when I am confronted with the option of choosing (math-heavy professions), I won’t even consider them because I have been told I’ll likely fail.”

Herzog was homeschooled when she was very young, and she said that the messaging from her parents that she was just as capable as her brothers when it came to math and science was key in her confidence to ultimately pursue physics professionally.

“I was always pushed by my parents to be everything I could be. When I was in high school and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to do something involving math because I had always been good at it,” said Herzog. “When I was really young, my dad and I would watch The Universe television series and I loved learning about the stars and the different galaxies; and I knew that you had to be good at math to study those things, so I decided to go into astrophysics.”

“From a very early age, women are told that we are not so good at math. And as a consequence, that we will not be good at physics. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy; because if you tell me that I’m not supposed to be good at math, when I am confronted with the option of choosing math-heavy professions, I won’t even consider them because I have been told I’ll likely fail.” – Dr. Nancy Sandler

While that baseline presumption that women are not naturally good at math and science nips many young female scientists in the bud; decades before they are even presented with the option of pursuing STEM related disciplines, both Herzog and Sandler said that another challenge that awaits female scientists is the sheer lack of similarly gendered peers once a woman works her way into a competitive, challenging academic setting.

Herzog was the only woman in the small physics department she worked with as an undergraduate student at the Minnesota State University at Moorhead, and while she said she didn’t feel like she was denied any opportunities on the basis of sex, she did have a hard time finding new friends.

“I definitely felt like I was a part of the group, but it was weird because I usually gravitate towards women as friends, and working mostly with guys did make it a little bit hard to connect,” she said. “I grew up with brothers, so it wasn’t like it was impossible, but the experience was maybe a little alienating.”

Herzog said her graduate experience has been very different.

“Ohio University has a very good representation of women in the physics department, and I was surprised when I came that my cohort was almost exactly half women and half men, with a really good representation of nationalities,” she said.

Sandler echoed some of Herzog’s experiences, recalling that she was often either the only woman or one of perhaps two women in many of her classes during her graduate experience at the University of Illinois.

“This is especially hard because as a woman, there is this, I don’t want to call it a prejudice, but there is this assumption that somehow the program will go easier on you because you are a woman, or use softer hands with you when they are supposed to be tough and rigorous, which creates this false separation between the male and female students,” said Sandler. “And because there are so few women in the program, you don’t have a support group the same way the male students have. You might have one or two other female students in your program, but what if you don’t get along with them? Since compatibility is really about personality, you don’t really have anybody; while the boys can easily form study and support groups. This translates into you feeling not only isolated socially, but also academically.”

Sandler said this isolation is compacted by the fact that women working in the context of STEM are participating in a highly competitive, high level academic and career field, which is difficult enough on its own, even with peers to commiserate and socialize with.

“You have this sense of being on your own, which is heavy and difficult since you are taking part in such a high pressure career. Then you have the occasional male colleague who will make some comment about you only receiving acknowledgement for your work because of diversity incentives – and my interpretation of these kinds of comments is that they are typically more based out of jealousy or fear than actual misogyny,” said Sandler. “I think it just has to do with the fact that the career is so competitive. In academia, especially, there are very few slots for full professors, and everybody is competing with everybody.”

Sandler said this is further complicated by the fact that when most women are getting into their PhD work, they are in their late twenties and early thirties, which is also when many women are seriously considering whether or not they want to have children – a decision that can make a massive impact on their burgeoning career, especially in the context of institutions in the United States.

“During those PhD years, those of us who want to have a family become very conscious of our biological clock, and it’s really difficult because the track to becoming a full professor is incredibly demanding and brutal,” she said. “It’s not like it is written down anyplace, but you really have to prove yourself and your dedication during those years. There’s this pressure of ‘oh, if I get married and decide to have a child, I’m going to get looked down on and less likely to be presented with the opportunities I need.’”

Sandler said that she has observed that countries other than the United States have had legislation in place for decades that allows for parents of any gender to take considerable amount of time off and still maintain their career, which she says is enormous for women in STEM fields.

“It makes the whole difference when you have the opportunity to have time for other aspects of your life; you can participate in this kind of competitive career and not worry so much about it impacting your personal life. It’s not having everything at the same time, but it does somehow partition your professional and personal lives,” Sandler said.

Sandler said that as she worked her way into her full professor position, she also noticed that just because a young female scientist finally finds an established woman in the context of her discipline, that does not mean that the more established female scientist will provide the kind of guidance and general career help that more established male scientists often instinctually offer to their budding male colleagues.

“Just because a woman had such an incredibly hard time working her way into a position, that does not mean that they will make things any easier for the women who pursue a discipline after them,” she said. “And that isn’t necessarily because of competition, it is because the more established woman feels legitimately threatened by female newcomers. It’s due to the fact that we have to constantly demonstrate how excellent we are, all the time, because we want to be recognized for our excellence, not our being women. It’s an attitude that is very complicated, but ultimately very harmful for women.”

Although it has been a tough road, Sandler said that she has observed some real changes for the better for women STEM.

“Luckily, I have seen changes; although if you look at the numbers, they still aren’t great,” she said. “There is still a lot of work to be done, and the numbers aren’t improving tremendously, but they are improving.”