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Female Scientists Work To Crack The Glass Ceiling

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Marti Jett (left) and Debra Yourick launched science careers in an era when it was unusual for women to do so.
Marti Jett (left) and Debra Yourick launched science careers in an era when it was unusual for women to do so.

A 2008 report from the National Science Foundation showed approximately one in 10 people who work in science and engineering are managers. And of those managers, fewer than 20 percent are women.

Further, female doctoral science and engineering faculty are less likely than their male colleagues to be married and have children living with them. The same report showed unmarried women without children received full professorships at a higher rate than married women with children.

Two local female scientists are working to change that and bring more women into the fold.

Dr. Marti Jett is the director of the Integrative Systems Biology program at the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research. So in simple terms she looks at post-traumatic-stress disorder in every organ system, to get a complete picture of what happens and how the condition can be treated. Dr. Debra Yourick is the director of Science Education and Strategic Communications at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She's studying brain injuries and how we can develop better drugs to treat such injuries. And both of them are particularly concerned about getting girls interested in what are known as STEM classes — that means science, technology, engineering and math.

Marti Jett says when she was in school, she was often the only girl in her science classes, "In almost all the science classes, certainly in physics, I was the only woman in class. Also, advanced math."

These two women have started a summer program for a thousand students in the D.C. area. It's called GEM — Gains in the Education of Math and Science. It gives students who may not have had any exposure to science a little taste of what a scientific career might be like. So students get paid for doing research, they even get their own mentors.

When Jett started as a researcher, it wasn't uncommon for people to expect that the female scientists would make coffee for the men. But in general, both she and Yourick feel the obstacles to advancement for women are much more understated now. Yourick still worries about women in science, based on the discrepancies between the number of girls participating in the GEMS program and the number of women who end up working in the field.

"We've had lots of participation in programs, sometimes more than 50 percent," she says. "And I know of many programs like ours. But I've yet to see it reflected in the larger scientific workforce."

That's why Jett and Yourick are pushing the female scientists they mentor to be more self-confident and assertive. For instance, Yourick talked about a recent meeting where a group was brainstorming recommendations about how to introduce children to biomedical careers. And she says two young women didn't say anything. "I think they did not feel comfortable and they had very little to contribute, and I was very unhappy with them. They spoke in a very agreeable fashion but not contributing to what was being done. You've got to stick your next out, you've got to try, to problem solve."

Both say they want to pass on their love for science, but they joke and say maybe they've been focusing on the wrong age group. Yourick says she was talking to another parent at her daughter's school once, "One woman pulled out a science fair brochure and she said, 'I just told my child, we don't really want to do this.' Part of the thing we should be doing is to convince the community to embrace science. They feel I'm bad at math, I'm bad at science. That's unfortunate. We need fun science campaign for parents!"


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