Creating Opportunities for Women in STEM | Workplace Gender Equality Q&A | Corning

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the proportion of women in STEM fields increased from 8% to 27% between 1970 and 2019. While that's excellent progress, women still make up the minority in these roles, and many barriers remain.

Take female authorship in high-impact scientific journals, for example. Nature recently found that women represented just 15% of senior authors, despite accounting for nearly a third of major grant recipients. Gender disparities, from subtle hiring biases to overt discrimination at work, are at play throughout the STEM ecosystem.

Even so, there's evidence of an inflection point. Programs such as Code Like a Girl are normalizing female involvement in STEM fields for young people, and ongoing investments in corporate equity initiatives and mentorships point to a forward-looking movement that has serious staying power.

So what will it take to build on the 27% rate of representation? We asked two professional females working in STEM organizations to share their experiences and perspectives on achieving gender equality in the workplace for STEM fields: Amanda Linkous, Ph.D., center manager of the NCI Center for Cancer Systems Biology of SCLC at Vanderbilt University; and Lydia Kenton Walsh, vice president of commercial operations at Corning Life Sciences.

Dr. Linkous has spent years in the cancer biology space studying lung and glioblastoma tumors and developing 3D organoids for drug screening. Kenton Walsh, who has a degree and background in biology as well as an MBA, has been with Corning for 33 years, working her way from product management to her current executive role. Here's what they had to say about women in STEM.

What progress have you seen during your career for women in STEM?

Dr. Linkous: There's more representation. I remember during the welcome lecture from graduate school, one of the faculty members discussed how, for the first time in the history of the program, our class was composed of more females than males. It was wonderful to see so many female scientists, and it was a real milestone for the program. I've seen that continue throughout my career — and it's not just limited to academia. We have seen female representation grow in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, too.

Walsh: When I first started in the lab — going back to the late '80s and early '90s — there were some female scientists, but not a lot. Most of the PIs were males. And when I started working on the business side of STEM, there were very few women salespeople working at all. But that has all changed. Now, we have more salespeople who are women than men! At least in life sciences, you're seeing an increase in opportunities for women, and we'll hopefully see that continue to expand as we get more young people interested in the sciences.

What barriers do you think still exist for women in STEM?

Dr. Linkous: We often focus so much on female leadership that we forget about barriers to equality at the earlier stages of a woman's career. There's a lot of effort around helping women break through the glass ceiling — and rightly so — but female representation is still lacking in entry- and mid-level positions. I can remember participating in many meetings or panel discussions in which I was the only female scientist in the group. Those everyday meetings and panel discussions are where women have a long way to go in terms of inclusion.

"We need to focus on the future generation and let them see all of the wonderful possibilities out there. That means supporting one another as women, too," says Dr. Amanda Linkous center manager of the NCI Center for Systems Biology of SCLC at Vanderbilt University.

What about stereotypes?

Dr. Linkous: There's a prevalent belief that a woman can either be a great wife and mother, or she can have a successful career in science, but she cannot have both. That's categorically untrue and ridiculous. As a female scientist who works full-time and has a child now, I'll admit that it can be challenging at times, but I do believe that you can absolutely have it all.

I'm very fortunate to have a husband who fully supports my career aspirations and is a wonderful father to our son. And I've also had very supportive mentors, both male and female, who understand that although my family will always be my priority, my scientific career and productivity will not suffer as a result.

Another stereotype is that women can be "too emotional," as if it's a bad thing to allow emotions to intertwine with your work on occasion. While I don't believe that emotions should overrule rational thinking, I do think that it takes passion and empathy to make an impact as a scientist. When women in science are passionate about their work and strive to create a welcoming and compassionate workplace environment, everyone benefits.

So what can we do as a society — and as women — to overcome these barriers?

Walsh: From a corporate perspective, initiatives that focus on inclusion and mentoring are essential, as is ensuring that we have succession plans in place that allow women the opportunities to lead as roles become available. We have a professional women's forum at Corning, which is open to women and men, where we highlight women's successes in science and innovation. We also run a program where female scientists speak to employees, such as a recent event where Dr. Corbett from NIH spoke about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Dr. Linkous: I agree with that. You have to lift each other up and provide opportunities for women to have their work highlighted and their voices heard. Meetings and conferences should involve fair representation of males and females from the various sciences. Perhaps most importantly, we need to focus on the future generation and let them see all of the wonderful possibilities out there. That means supporting one another as women, too. We should encourage each other to achieve everything we can.

Still, while women helping other women is important, remember that we also have male allies in science who want to see gender equity as much as we do. Don't be afraid to reach out to those colleagues as you navigate your scientific journey. If you think about science, it's all about using teamwork to solve problems, and this is a big problem in the field of science as a whole, so we have to use all of our resources.

Learn more about the organizations supporting the representation and progress of women in the sciences in this Girls Who STEM article.