Women advocating for women is essential in all disciplines, but especially science which remains male-dominated. Women in science groups have been drawing attention to sexism and the underrepresentation of women since the 1970s and 500 Women Scientists (500WS) is one of today’s most prominent groups working to foster real change.
500WS is an international effort that is working to be the foremost organisation for the transformation of leadership, diversity and public engagement in science and aims to make science open, inclusive, and accessible to everyone in every society. Immediately following the November 2016 election, 500WS published an open letter re-affirming their commitment to speak up for science and for women, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA.
In an interview with co-founders Kelly Ramirez and Jane Zelikova, we at Research Features found out more about 500WS’ heritage, mission, highlights and aims for the future.
Hi Kelly and Jane! Can you both tell us more about 500 Women Scientists (500WS) in terms of its core principles, mission and background? What was the reason behind co-founding this?
500WS began as a text message string in November 2016, immediately following the US election. We were initially reacting to the outcome of the election, concerned that our values as women and as scientists were under attack. We grew from a text message string of four women scientists to an email string of 20 to 50 to 200 within a few days, all with the goal of supporting each other and working together on how to fight against the blatant sexism and racism and anti-knowledge rhetoric that won the day on November 8th 2016. We started by writing an open letter, re-emphasising our commitment to our values of social justice and inclusion in science and pledging to fight for these things in the coming months and years.
During our first year, we went from an open letter to a strong organisation led by Jane and myself, together with ten other women scientists from around the world (we now have a leadership and an advisory board). Our mission is to serve society by making science open, inclusive, and accessible. Our open letter garnered support from 20k people around the world. The 500 Women Scientists organisation has been especially effective in building a community for women and creating opportunities to interact and have safe spaces to talk about issues that we have encountered in the workplace. Meeting in person and organising online has all helped us start to create solutions. We are building a collective and unapologetically feminist voice for women in science and given how quickly we have grown, our approach clearly resonates not just in the US, but across the world and we are helping address this need.
Can you tell us more about your careers in science and experience as women in science? What have your personal experiences been as women in leading roles?
KR: Jane and I talk about how we have both been extremely lucky to have strong women scientists for role models, colleagues and friends throughout our careers. We know that this is the exception though and one major reason for initiating 500WS was that we wanted to give other women the opportunity to build strong networks that could support them in their own career.
However, there are always challenges to face, both obvious and more hidden. Navigating the experience of being a woman in science, especially in a leading role (and in society) is honestly exhausting – and these challenges are even more severe for women of colour. Maintaining optimism and focus for our jobs requires patience, a thick skin, and support from others.
JZ: I completely 100% agree with Kelly. I have been so lucky to have an incredibly strong and inspirational mom and friends and colleagues in and outside of science, not only when things are rough but also when I want to celebrate my accomplishments. To be honest, I find myself in a leadership role more often than not (probably a personality feature) but learning to become a more effective leader has been critical. Leading for me has been a mix of harnessing the strengths of others and finding ways I can lead by example.
Working with Kelly and the amazing 500 Women Scientists leadership team has been exceptional because we largely do not work as a hierarchy but make decisions collectively. We try to embody our mission of being an organisation where we are leaders building leaders. We rotate new women onto the leadership team every three months and everyone has a chance to lead initiatives and have a strong say in the direction of the organisation.
Can you tell us more about the pledge and the impact this has had for 500 Women Scientists How has this contributed towards the global effort of supporting women in science?
The pledge now seems like ages ago as it was our first step of 500WS. Everything we wrote is still true today and provides the foundation from which we are building our organisation. Since we wrote the pledge in November 2016, we have grown very quickly – we now have almost 200 pods and 3000+ active pod members around the world. Our mission is to serve society by making science open, inclusive and accessible, and our vision is to be the foremost organisation for the transformation of leadership, diversity and public engagement in science. Acknowledging that we can’t fix everything at once, we have chosen to focus on three areas that fit within our mission:
(1) Empower women to grow to their full potential in science; (2) Increase scientific literacy through public engagement; and (3) Solution-driven advocacy for inclusion in science.
It is clear from your website that you advocate for partnerships with other organisations and societies that share a similar goal. Why are these partnerships with other groups so important?
There are so many awesome groups and individuals whose activities meet our mission and vision. Together, we can enact change that has a better chance of taking hold in society and be more than the sum of our parts. For example, we have recently partnered with Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) to support their mission to transform STEM education in Puerto Rico, particularly in light of the recovery efforts following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. We’ve launched a campaign called Science Salons for Puerto Rico, inviting each of our pods to host public events featuring talks from women scientists to raise money and awareness for CienciaPR’s continued efforts.
The benefit of our Pods is that they can partner with their local organisations and in this way, take real action in their own communities.
Aside from partnerships, part of our role is to amplify existing voices and efforts. There are many other groups like ESWN, Soapbox Science and #BlackandSTEM, and individuals who have been pushing for social justice in science. We support their work by sharing within and outside our network and when possible, we reach out and form more official partnerships.
Can you briefly tell us more about the idea behind the ‘Request a Woman Scientist’ and what this involves?
The Request a Woman Scientist idea came from our repeated experience of seeing all men panels (manels) and men being the lone voices of authority when it comes to science in the public sphere. The same excuses were being used repeatedly – “We tried to find a woman to speak on this panel, but we didn’t know any women who work on this thing” or “All the women we asked said no”, etc. The endless excuses reflect a broader issue – we need to change the face of what a ‘scientist’ looks like from ‘old pale and male’ to the diversity of people and perspectives in science today. We created a platform to make it easy to find a woman scientist. So, no more excuses. As with our open letter, the Request a Woman Scientist platform spread like wildfire, we now have over 5000 volunteers and it is being used daily by journalists, conference organisers, school teachers, and other scientists. I already used the platform four times when trying to find a speaker for a panel I’m organising, an expert on a topic for a story, a potential collaborator on a project, and to also invite women in a specific location to a 500 Women Scientists happy hour.
What was the outcome of your recent open letter to President Donald Trump in Forbes magazine and did it indeed have the desired impact that you hoped for?
We wrote this letter in January 2017 and unsurprisingly, the administration’s attack on basic human rights, on science, on knowledge, and on decency has not let up. With our letter, we did not expect the Trump administration or the Republican Party to suddenly come to their senses and change course. Instead, the letter was a rallying point and what has changed is our own group – we have focused our actions and really pushed ourselves to publicly speak out and push for inclusion in the sciences. Writing public-facing pieces in publications like Forbes, but also in Scientific American about Bill Nye, sexual harassment, and DACA allows us to engage with the public in a new and different way. Rather than speaking only about our scientific accomplishments, we are speaking up and pushing for social justice in science and beyond. Scientists are people, and we cannot do our jobs as scientists if our livelihood and our very humanity is at risk.
Why do you think that women are still under-represented in the world of scientific research?
There are a range of issues that hold back women in the sciences and those issues can change depending on the scientific discipline and location. This is why 500WS is dynamic and why we encourage our pods to focus on issues relevant to their own community.
What needs to be done to ensure that women continue to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and careers?
Again, because the challenges vary, the solutions must also vary. For academia in the US and Europe, it would be beneficial to change the incentives and how we value scientific contribution, as we wrote about here. But there is never just one fix. Therefore, we are building an organisation that is really a platform to share experiences, resources, and solutions.
What are both your personal achievements and highlights at 500 Women Scientists?
KR: The highlights of 500WS never seem to stop. Women around the world are using our organisation as an inspiration to meet, network, and address the problems in their community. While our large actions have been amazing to see take hold, some of my best experiences have been the one-on-one talks with women at conferences or even just over email. There is truly an endless list of inspiring women in STEM in the world, and we are so lucky to be in a place to meet and get to know them.
JZ: I continue to be completely in awe of the reach of our organisation and how much of a difference it makes for people. The daily grind of email triage and pushing forward so many different projects at the same time wears on us but then we see people rallying around something we have written or done and as cheesy as it sounds, it makes all the late nights worth it.
Can you tell us more about 500 Women Scientists’ plans for the future?
Our goal is to continue to grow a sustainable, solution-driven organisation. Part of that means continuing to push our scientific communities to reckon with our long history of injustice and continuing to be the unapologetically feminist voice in science. It also means finding ways to support our organisation financially and find champions and supporters who believe in our vision and mission.
Why not find out more about 500WS or even contribute to the project by donating when you visit their website at https://500womenscientists.org/.