Words can be powerful: encouraging young women in science.


I’m writing this post because I have been thinking about my career goals and how they have changed since my days as an undergraduate. It is only recently that I have seriously thought that becoming a professor is something I want to do and that it might actually be possible for me to do. One really simple thing helped me to come to this realization. It’s not the only thing, but it was a really important thing for me, so I want to share the story here.

I’ve read a lot of things about why there are fewer women than men in academic science, and one idea seems to be that women just aren’t as motivated as men to become professors. Maybe that’s true – but why?

Maybe girls grow up watching TV shows featuring scientist characters that are mostly male, nature documentaries mainly hosted by men, and news stories or interviews with scientists who are usually men. Maybe most of the science books and toys are marketed towards boys. Maybe girls aren’t encouraged to join the math club or Odyssey of the Mind. Maybe most of their science teachers and the scientists in their textbooks are male.

But putting all that aside for a moment, let’s assume a young woman can enter University with an open mind, believing that any career path is potentially open to her. I was such a young woman.

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at first, but realized during my first year that I loved math, and entered a mathematics degree program. Over the course of this program, male professors taught all but one of my math courses. A female postdoc taught the exceptional course. Many students complained about the quality of the course and her teaching, and at least one wondered aloud about her qualifications. (She was actually an excellent teacher, but she had a quiet voice and a thick accent so her lectures were hard to follow with so many students talking over her. There was a male professor in the department who was also very soft-spoken and had an accent. When he was lecturing, the room was always silent.)

I never seriously considered a career in mathematics despite doing very well in my program. I did think that maybe teaching high school math was something I could end up doing – I learned that I loved teaching as an undergraduate TA for a first year calculus course in my 3rd and 4th year.

Later I went back to school while working part-time, taking some undergraduate courses in biology. Of the 13 biology courses I took, male professors taught 8. Of my 5 female teachers, four were full-time lecturers; only one was a professor. All of these women were amazing and inspiring teachers. My impression was that my one female professor must have been really exceptional to make it the way she has.

It turned out that I loved biology even more than I loved math. When I considered potential careers, I thought that maybe I could become a lecturer in biology – I still loved teaching. It never crossed my mind that becoming a professor was something I could do, until during my work as a summer research assistant, my PhD-student-mentor’s supervisor stopped me to chat in the hall one day. He told me that he hoped I would pursue a graduate degree in his lab, and that he saw me becoming a professor one day.

I was frankly shocked by that conversation, but also really excited. I still have some trouble imagining myself becoming a professor, but not quite so much as I did then. Since my recent MSc defense, when my supervisor* again told me that he believes I can and will become a professor, it’s something I’ve actually started thinking is within the realm of possibility.

My parents always told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and encouraged my interest in science. Maybe I’m just not that ambitious, and that’s why I didn’t aspire to become a professor during my undergraduate work, despite the fact that I knew I wanted to continue in science and enjoyed both research and teaching. I never consciously thought to myself, hmm, looks like professing is for men (and maybe the occasional extraordinary woman) so that’s obviously not open to me. But it’s pretty clear to me that when I was considering potential careers in science, I looked at the people around me (and noticed people’s attitudes towards them) and that influenced my thinking about what I might be able to do.

The number of women in academic science is increasing, and I think things are slowly improving in a lot of ways. Having good role models and mentors (both male and female), and being a role model and mentor, is really important for female students and academics. And whether you’re male or female, you can help by encouraging girls and young women to do science. Just telling them out loud that they can be scientists and professors if they want to might make a difference.


*My inspirational MSc supervisor was Gerhard Gries, who has been fiercely supportive ever since we first met. I am extremely grateful to him for his continued mentorship, and for always believing in me.

5 thoughts on “Words can be powerful: encouraging young women in science.

  1. Thank you for this! I am working on a daily basis to find a way to encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM. I get so.frustrated many times and your story is encouraging.

  2. Important point! I think solidifyng the possibility of an academic career in undergraduate minds is really important. For the vast majority of the world “professor” is a really weird out there career that only geniuses go into. Most people don’t know a professor in real life (i.e. outside of their college days). Those of us working as a professor in a college town can easily forget just how unusual our social circle is. Another source/symptom of the problem is the number of academics who have an academic parent is further evidence of this (say I raising my hand guiltily).

    I know in my own experience just telling an undergraduate that they would be a good professor comes as a shock to most students. Even ones who are straight A students or doing research in a lab. You can actually see them pause, look surprised and also appreciative of the complement. You realize they have never thought of this. And with some of them you can see their world shift. That is a great feeling to be part of!

  3. I completely agree! When I am feeling discouraged about becoming a scientist, these kinds of comments are the ones that I draw on for encouragement to stick with it. I think they are actually most powerful and memorable when they come from a scientist I barely know. A couple years ago, I was meeting with a seminar speaker and we had a great discussion of ideas, he looked at me and said, “You’re really going to do well at this,” or something along those lines. That moment has really meant a lot, and stuck with me. Just a small nugget of encouragement can be huge for the recipient :)

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