Talking to women scientists about women in science

As part of Women’s History Month, Temple University Press author Sandra Hanson  visited the laboratory, Fermilab, to talk with women scientists. She shared her thoughts in this blog entry.

A few days ago I visited Fermilab in Chicago. Fermi representatives had invited me to give a talk during national women’s history month since my work as a sociologist focuses on women in science. Some of the folks at the lab were familiar with my research on gender, race, and science recently published in Swimming against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education.

Swimming Against the Tide

This is a very historic and distinguished laboratory. Much of what we know about matter and energy and even how the universe began was discovered over the last four decades at Fermilab, a national laboratory funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy.

As a sociologist, I seldom get the opportunity to meet laboratory scientists (even though I spend much of my time studying science occupations). The highlight of the visit was a lunch with 11 women who had degrees and fields of experience in areas involving physics, engineering, chemistry, and technology. These women were doing incredible things in an environment that has historically been reserved for males and which still has many vestiges of a male culture.

It is the success of women like this that will pave the way for the large number of girls that my research (and that of others) reveals to have considerable science interest and talent. Sometimes the gendered aspect of science education and occupations is hard to see. It is a part of the “world taken for granted.”

The question and answer period following my talk to over a hundred Fermilab scientists and guests provided evidence for this phenomenon. There were more than a few in the audience who didn’t really buy into the “nurture” part of the development of talent in science.

The visit to Fermilab was a great opportunity for me to meet and talk to physical scientists working in science labs. It also reminded me that sociologists have to be able to talk about their research methods and findings to all kinds of audiences (not just sociologists and social scientists).

If we can talk about issues involving social structures like race, gender, and social class (and how they impact our lives) in a meaningful way to all kinds of audiences, we will become better sociologists.

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