This fall, I will have a full-circle moment in my career: returning to my undergraduate alma mater, Cornell University—where I was nearly weeded out of STEM entirely— to talk about the continuing problem of people, and women in particular, being driven out of STEM fields. In the past two decades, as a scientist turned science communicator, I have seen too many people pushed out of STEM careers or stymied in their advancement, and I have written a book about it, Women in Science Now: Stories and Strategies for Achieving Equity. Now I have the opportunity to talk to the next generation of scientists about how far we have come and about how far we have yet to go.
My journey began as an undergraduate student at the College of Engineering at Cornell. I chose engineering because I loved using science to creatively solve problems. I also wanted a practical career that would lead to financial stability, and I was heavily inspired by my older sister, who was herself pursuing engineering.
When I arrived at Cornell. I had no worries at first about fitting in or about whether I could “cut it.” However, despite having taken advanced STEM classes and having been at the top of my class in high school, I soon struggled. I remember hearing male students snigger at me during some of the classes when I was actually doing well, speculating about what sexual favors I might have done for the TA. In other classes, I felt as though I was actively being weeded out of the program, and I found little support.
Although I made it through those first couple of years and did all right, I decided that I did not want to be an engineer. I was fortunate at the time, however, to find a great role model in Valerie Voss, an on-air meteorologist at CNN, who gave a guest lecture in a new interdisciplinary earth science program that I was exploring. When I saw this powerful woman scientist, who was from my hometown of Atlanta, something clicked for me. I quickly pivoted to this program, while staying in the engineering college and specializing in science writing. After deciding to be a science communicator, I never looked back.
Since then, I have interviewed hundreds of scientists about their research and breakthroughs in fields such as immunology, biotechnology, and cognitive neuroscience, among others, and I have heard time and time again about the unique struggles facing women scientists. I also worked as publicist for the Emmy-Award-winning documentary Picture a Scientist which exposes the persistent gender-based bias and harassment in science. Many groups reached out in the wake of the film with an interest in furthering progress for women scientists including Miranda Martin, an editor at Columbia University Press.
When Miranda asked me if I would be interested in writing a book about gender bias and discrimination in STEM fields, my thoughts instantly turned to all the scientists I had met over the years, as well as to my personal experiences and my past work with social scientists. In that moment, I knew I wanted to write a book that would bring a social science perspective to the thorny problem of discrimination in STEM. I wanted to explore the question: how can we use science to make science equitable for everyone?
My book pairs first-person stories from women scientists in various disciplines with social science research on potential solutions to close the gender gap in STEM fields. For example, Dr. Krystal Tsosie shares her path to becoming a geneticist and bioethicist. She is a first-generation college student and a citizen of the Navajo Nation. She describes growing up in West Phoenix and feeling singled out, and sometimes tokenized, throughout high school and college despite being at the top of her class. She left her PhD program in cancer biology after feeling a lack of mentorship, with no clear pathway toward work that would benefit Indigenous peoples. Now she works to mentor other Indigenous scientists and is an advocate for Indigenous data advocacy.
Tsosie’s personal story mirrors what researchers have found in studies of effective mentorship for Indigenous peoples — finding that effective mentors are those who can help connect Indigenous scientists to broader communal goals of helping their local tribal communities. Those connections between individual stories and data are powerful in understanding the gender gap in science.
We must close the gender gap in the scientific enterprise to fuel advancements that will help humanity and the planet thrive. The good news is that we have a large body of research from scientists themselves to guide us. I love the idea that we can use science to help fix science, and I hope my book will inspire a new generation of people to work toward this goal.
Lisa M. P. Munoz is the author of Women in Science Now: Stories and Strategies for Achieving Equity (Columbia University Press, 2023). She is a science writer and the Founder and President of SciComm Services, Inc., a science communications consulting firm. A former journalist and press officer, she has more than twenty years of experience crafting science content for scientists and the public alike. Munoz holds an engineering degree from Cornell University.