3 Ways Marie Curie Would Fix the Plight of Women in STEM Fields
It’s ridiculous that the same issues Nobel laureate Marie Curie confronted at the turn of the 19th century continue to be impediments to a woman’s success in the modern STEM fields. Seven percent of CIOs are female. One in seven engineers are women. Meanwhile, those who are in the ranks (and other female STEM experts) earn 12% less than male counterparts. These stats are not quickly improving. In some instances, they are worsening. For example, “women represent 12% of all computer science graduates. In 1984, they represented 37% of all computer science graduates,” according to Girls Who Code, an organization that exposes and trains girls on computer programming. These stats scream that drastic measures are called for. Supporting female scientists from the sidelines is insufficient. They don’t need a shoulder to lean on—they need a strong hand to pull them up to the stage where they can showcase their talents.
The challenges continue to include balancing careers with families and a lack of access to men-only networks. One suggestion is “aggressively promoting qualified women to science advisory boards, science journal editorial boards, and science policy positions,” as per the American Association of University Professors.
This recommendation is compelling because it focuses on giving women seats at the tables where the rules to operate in the STEM fields are defined. Here is how Marie Curie would ask women in STEM fields to meet this challenge.
1. Gain the sponsorship of the most influential men in your field. Aside from her husband, Pierre Curie, who was so invested in Marie’s work on radioactivity that he put aside his own work on crystallography, Marie surrounded herself with respected scientists. She partnered with Henri Becquerel, and the three earned a Nobel Prize in physics. You should identify current or former professors with the strongest relationships in your field. Write out five ways on how you can be helpful to them. Relentlessly find ways to make your success integral to their success. A sponsorship relationship only works if your sponsor trusts you, witnesses your capabilities, and relies on them for his own success. After you’ve earned his trust, he will introduce you to other opportunities that will serve as the career markers you’ll need to professionally rise. For example, anyone who aspires to join a science advisory board in biotech will be evaluated on both their “reputation and quality of his or her network in determining that individual’s business savvy.” Start identifying and aligning with your own Becquerel, Einstein, or Planck—just a few of the men who witnessed Marie’s work.
2. Support a human cause, then tell others about it. Women don’t avoid the hard sciences because they can’t outperform their male counterparts; they just prefer human interactions and the greater societal impact that the soft sciences offer, according to a recent Huffington Post article. Curie hinged her work around radioactive parts in hopes of providing medical healing. She provided mobile X-ray vans during World War I and directly trained technicians. Although she worked tirelessly to separate radioactive elements in a lab, she took her efforts to the field. As a result, Marie Curie was able to wrap her obsession around the cause to reduce human suffering. It’s your turn to change the perception that working in a hard science field is bereft of individual or societal impact. Uncover why you chose the path less taken by women, then humanize your work. For instance, if your cause is devising cost-effective ways to use clean energy, identify the future beneficiaries of your work. Meet with five of these people. Once you do this, talk about these conversations in public forums. Give this audience’s needs a voice in scientific journals or publications. If that’s not possible yet, blog. If you can code a website, then should you not have an online platform for your life’s work?
3. Change work-life balance policies from the bottom up. Obama is advocating for policies that allow women to balance their career and family lives; this balancing act concerns women in STEM fields. However, quick government changes are unlikely. Instead, influence change at the grassroots level by suggesting updated schedule policies at work. For example, regarding maternity leave, propose a gradual reentry into work. During your first weeks back, go part-time. Grab the Mommy Shift for more guidance that can smoothen your transition. Alternatively, as a student, the core issue could be financial aid policies, because only 13% of the top-ranked universities offer paid maternity leave to aspiring Ph.D. students. Marie Curie became a single mom to two daughters upon her husband’s death. She had to subsequently raise money to purchase radium with the support of her friends and supporters; a grassroots effort funded her experiments. Irrespective of your setting, the most effective way to affect policy is by demonstrating your value in that setting, devising a business case, and gathering internal support for that idea.
Marie Curie earned the sponsorship of scientific influencers. Curie humanized her radioactive efforts and implemented grassroots efforts to finance her passion. Meanwhile, her daughters are an even greater legacy. They are successful because she also figured out a way to influence them even remotely. She would write them letters with math problems to solve. Some would say that she sponsored them even more than she mothered them. Her interest in their careers and aptitude for the sciences resulted in one of them becoming a Nobel laureate who continued her mom’s work in radioactivity. The other daughter became a writer; she wrote Marie’s biography, which was a US bestseller. Similarly, once you’ve propelled forward, invest in the next generation of female STEM experts. Align their success with yours and witness their talents.
Contact me [firstname.lastname@example.org] to learn more about how I can empower your high-performing female scientists through coaching or training to expand their networks. What’s your take on solving the plight of women in the STEM fields?