The inaugural event was planned by women students in the sciences, and the discussions were led by accomplished women scientists, administrators and staff who know a thing or two about the challenges women face in advancing their STEM careers.
The inaugural Women in STEM Conference was held at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo campus on Feb. 12. The all-day event brought together women leaders, scientists, students, and members of the campus community to discuss the current state of affairs for women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Topics covered a social history of women in STEM, the importance of mentorship, sexual harassment, mental health, the wage gap, work-family-life balance, retaining women STEM students, and creating a supportive climate for underrepresented minorities in STEM.
The conference was sponsored by the UH Hilo’s Women’s Center, TCBES MATERS Club (of the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program), and the Office of Equal Opportunity.
The opening talk was given by Marina Karides, chair of the sociology department at UH Hilo. She spoke on the dearth of women faculty in STEM fields, particularly in the UH system, where women make up only 35 percent of STEM faculty. “If about half our population identify as women, then about half should be represented in all sectors of our workforce,” she says. “Instead what we systematically have is an overrepresentation of men in higher paying work and fields and women in lower paying work and fields.”
“We need to let women know they are welcome and strive to reach equity like equal salaries, teaching loads, and support in research.”
—UH Hilo astronomer Marianne Takamiya
Marianne Takamiya, an astronomer at UH Hilo, took part in a panel discussion about factors affecting the retention of women in STEM fields. “We need to hire and retain more role models in STEM, especially those fields that are male-dominated like computer science, math, chemistry, and physics,” she says. “We need to let women know they are welcome and strive to reach equity like equal salaries, teaching loads, and support in research. This is yet another chance for UH Hilo to be on the map, since we are already recognized for our diversity.”
Open discussion about challenges faced by women in STEM
The conference, organized and produced entirely by students, was the brainchild of Karen Gallardo Cruz and Ashley Pugh, both students in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science (TCBES) graduate program.
“This conference was entirely driven by students and staff—they had curiosity and ran with it to develop something larger and comprehensive,” says Rebecca Ostertag, professor of biology and chair of the TCBES program. “I’m impressed by how broadly they thought about the topics and backgrounds of the guest speakers and panelists, and how passionate and driven they were to share stories and knowledge with the entire campus community.”
“Know your worth, the value of the position, and the company culture. Understand how to negotiate and do it.”
—Director of UH Hilo Office of Equal Opportunity Jennifer Stotter
Cruz, who is a researcher in the UH Hilo Bioaccoustics Lab working with biologist Pat Hart, explained that the genesis of the STEM conference really started with her questioning faculty and graduate students about how they balanced their personal and professional lives, especially scientists such as biologists or astronomers who often spend large amounts of time away from home in remote locations doing field work.
Cruz initially envisioned a smaller event.
“At first I was picturing a small round-table discussion, but when I brought the idea up to Rebecca Ostertag, she suggested having a full-day event, and maybe collaborating with the Gender and Women’s Studies program,” says Cruz. “I brought up this larger idea to Ashley Pugh and the TCBES Mater’s Club, and was connected with Megan Hillery and Destiny Rodriguez from the UH Hilo Women’s Center, who both immediately began supporting us in our endeavor.”
Cruz also connected with Buddhini Samarasinghe, a molecular biologist who recently completed postdoctoral research at UH Hilo’s Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy and who founded the website STEM Women. Samarasinghe provided Cruz with ideas for conference topics, emphasizing issues not usually discussed openly with young women interested in a career in science.
“It’s important to have this conference because the topics covered are not often openly discussed, and a lot of people are either unaware of these issues, or misinformed,” says Cruz. “It’s important to start having these discussions more openly, learn from one another, and form a supportive community so women can continue making strides in all STEM fields. Too often, women compete against each other instead of lifting each other. I hope this conference encourages us all to lift each other so we can collectively succeed.”
During her remarks at the conference, Jennifer Stotter, director of the UH Hilo Office of Equal Opportunity and coordinator of Title IX compliance, laid out some strategies for negotiating fair wages for women in STEM. “Know your worth, the value of the position, and the company culture. Understand how to negotiate and do it.”
More photos of conference, click to enlarge:
About the author of this story: Leah Sherwood is a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.
About the photographer: Raiatea Arcuri is a professional photographer majoring in business at UH Hilo. He was awarded USA Young Landscape Photographer of the Year 2016 (read his blog post about the winning photograph).