Blog: Changes: Women in STEM

Progress and Promise: The Shifting Landscape of Gender in STEM

Yuying Zhao

When Professor Tanya Berger-Wolf joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) in 2005, she was the first female assistant professor in her department. Some speculated that her appointment was purely driven by “demographic” considerations. However, she chose not to confront those voices. Instead, she responded through her actions: successfully navigating the tenure track, ascending to the rank of full professor, and making significant contributions to data science for environmental conservation. This response eloquently disproved any doubts regarding her merit.

Throughout her career, Prof. Berger-Wolf (now a full professor at Ohio State University) consistently stood against inequity. Years ago, she recalls, during one of the scientific conferences, she was the only female participant in an otherwise all-male panel. When a moderator presented the panelists, all male participants were introduced with their full credentials while she was mentioned only by her name. She then proudly introduced herself and sent an email to the organizers afterward. “There are students in the audience, and the message to them is that a female panelist is not as credentialed, as important, as respectable as every male panelist. I’m sure this is not the message you wanted to deliver,” she wrote. Prof. Berger-Wolf also formed several organizations to support female researchers, an initiative echoed by others in the field.

These collective efforts are incrementally yet perceptibly altering the gender dynamic within STEM. Diversity and inclusivity have evolved into integral aspects of most STEM conferences. Prof. Berger-Wolf affirms that the differential introduction of female panelists is a thing of the past. Conferences nowadays strive to project diverse voices, and ensure equitable opportunities for all genders to headline as keynote speakers and hold esteemed positions within the community. Additionally, conferences now host special events in order to inspire more engagement from historically marginalized groups. Using the prestigious KDD conference as an illustration, there were times when no female keynote speakers were featured. However, recent years have seen a consistent surge of women fulfilling these influential roles. With respect to women-centric events, there were none in the past, but recent years have witnessed their inception and growth, commencing with a women’s panel in 2019, a women’s lunch in 2020, evolving into a half-day workshop in 2021, and culminating into a full-day workshop in 2022.

Such initiatives are fostering increased participation of female researchers and increasing the opportunity for female researchers to amplify their influence. These endeavors have been extrapolated to accommodate other underrepresented groups and the younger generation. For example, Prof. Yizhou Sun from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who serves as the General Co-chair for KDD’2023, is currently organizing a summer institute for high school students that provides diversity scholarships, encouraging female and other underrepresented student groups to attend a three-week program at UCLA. “As faculty, we are encouraged to recruit more female students and more diverse students. It is like building a pipeline. Once you have more female Ph.D. students, you will definitely have more female researchers in the future,” says Prof. Sun.

Yet, the question remains – are these efforts enough? Promoting female participation and nurturing the development of the younger generation undoubtedly adds momentum to the shifting gender dynamics. Nevertheless, concerns linger. For instance, Prof. Jing Gao from Purdue University underscores the need for sustained action following such events: “We are bringing people’s attention, increasing awareness during the conferences. But if we just turn around and forget all of these, then what’s the point of organizing so many diversity panels? The most important work is actually after the conference, we need to really put these things into action.” Prof. Gao further emphasizes the significance of collective involvement, not solely focusing on women. Other areas necessitate further refinement, such as addressing suspicions about weighing demographic considerations into the selection process of award recipients or position holders, instead of basing those decisions solely on the candidates’ professional competencies.

Despite the challenges and uncertainties, progress is palpable. With an increasing number of individuals contemplating how to convert rhetoric into action, step-by-step progress is inevitable and the promises will be fulfilled. The conviction that individuals, regardless of gender, can enrich the research community, will continue to resonate and gain wider acceptance. “Eventually, one day, there will be no need for organizations and efforts dedicated to supporting women or other underrepresented groups.” – the aspiration of Prof. Berger-Wolf is the hope of many.