PSU faculty discuss barriers to women in the sciences
Author: Chris Broderick, PSU Communications
Posted: February 15, 2018

Kelly Clifton, Jaboa Lake, Gwen Shusterman and Karen Marrongelle on stageProgress has been made by women in science and engineering fields over the years, but gender bias and stereotypes often remain stubborn barriers to overcome, a Portland State University academic panel said Thursday.

Two professors and a graduate student researcher discussed their experiences and insights in the science, technology, engineering and math fields before a campus and community audience of about 150 at the Native American Student and Community Center.

Karen Marrongelle, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences that sponsored the event, moderated the panel and recalled a controversial 1980 study that suggested males showed more aptitude for math than females after reviewing standardized test scores for the top three percent of middle and high schoolers who took the tests. Despite the small sample and other issues, she said the story took off in the popular media at a time when little girls played with talking Barbie dolls that said, “Math is hard.”   

“That was nearly 40 years ago, and we are still debating it,’’ Marrongelle said, referring to former Google employee James Damore’s visit to campus on Saturday. He was fired by the tech giant after posting a 10-page memo making remarks that blamed “personality differences” and other factors as the reasons there are fewer women in tech fields and high-stress positions.  

Gwen Shusterman, chemistry professor and director of PSU’s STEM Institute, recalled there was only one woman professor out of 70 chemistry faculty at the University of California-Berkeley when she attended graduate school there. There are now eight women on the faculty, a sign of progress but also a sign of the challenges that remain. Over the years, she also has experienced and witnessed sexual harassment in many forms.

“Men have to stand up and say, this is not acceptable,” she said.   

Kelly Clifton, a PSU engineering professor, remembered that when she was one of three out of 100 engineering students, she was assigned to clerical duties as a work-study student while males were assigned to work in labs. 

At PSU, they said bias can be more subtle or at times unintentional, as when men talk over women rather than ask questions and seek their opinions. Jaboa Lake, a graduate researcher in Psychology, added that bias and stereotyping can occur “not just when women are in the room, but it can be even more harmful when they are not” and men talk about them in marginalizing terms.       

All the panelists suggested ways to help draw more women in STEM fields. For example, they said parents can encourage young children to be curious about science, make discoveries, learn to use tools and figure out the way things work. At the college level, PSU and universities need to create more opportunities for undergraduates to explore STEM research.

Caption: Kelly Clifton, Jaboa Lake and Gwen Shusterman speak on a panel moderated by Karen Marrongelle, far right.