Women Breaking Barriers in Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science

Meet the Experts

OnlineEducation.com interviewed five leading women in the fields of atmospheric chemistry and climate science to understand better the challenges facing women in these STEM professions. Each of these scientists offered insights into the barriers that women are overcoming in these fields and advice to others who may consider pursuing a career in atmospheric chemistry or climate science.

Emily Fischer, PhD Dr. Emily Fischer is the lead investigator on a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research project aimed at bringing more women undergraduates into the geosciences. She holds the position of Assistant Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University and is on the Leadership Board of the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN).

Meredith Hastings, PhD Dr. Meredith Hastings is an Associate Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Brown University and current Vice President of the ESWN. She is an atmospheric chemist and a biogeochemical scientist whose research focuses on global connections between changes in atmospheric chemistry and climate. Dr. Hastings holds a PhD in Geosciences from Princeton University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Science and Chemistry from the University of Miami.

Tracey Holloway, PhD Dr. Tracey Holloway is president of the ESWN and Team Lead on NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team. Her training is in applied mathematics, environmental policy, and atmospheric and oceanic sciences. Dr. Holloway is a Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), where she also teaches in the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering departments.

Erika Marin-Spiotta, PhD Dr. Erika Marin-Spiotta runs the Biogeography and Biogeochemistry Research Group at the UW-Madison, where she is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography. She is the principal investigator on an NSF ADVANCE Partnership grant to address sexual harassment in the geosciences and is on the Leadership Board of the ESWN. She holds a BS in Biology from Stanford University and a PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management from UC Berkeley.

Christine Wiedinmyer, PhD Dr. Christine Wiedinmyer is the Associate Director for Science at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, and is on the Leadership Board of the ESWN. A former National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientist, Dr. Wiedinmyer holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Tulane University and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).

The Formation of the ESWN

“It was hard to assess what my life would look like as an academic researcher… it dawned on me that there really wasn’t anyone who had the kind of life I imagined for myself. That realization helped plant the seeds for what would become the ESWN.” (Meredith Hastings)

The 2002 Spring Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) spanned four days in May in Washington DC. It included sessions on global climate change, geomagnetism, hydrology, and many other topics that fit under the large umbrella of geoscience. Present to convene a panel on “Policy-Relevant Versus Policy-Driven Atmospheric Chemistry Research” were two early-career scientists who happened to be women: Dr. Tracey Holloway, then affiliated with Columbia Earth Institute; and Dr. Meredith Hastings, who was at the time affiliated with the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University. Holloway and Hastings were joined on the panel by another female scientist, Harvard University climate physicist Dr. Arlene Fiore. An AGU session headed by three women wasn’t entirely unheard of in the early 2000s, but in a traditionally male-dominated specialization like atmospheric science, it wasn’t the norm, a fact that wasn’t lost on the organizers.

“After the panel, we had a reception, which was not particularly common, but we thought it would be a good networking opportunity,” recalls Holloway, an atmospheric and climate scientist who today leads the air quality research program at the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at UW-Madison. “At the reception we saw a bunch of our peers – people we’d normally see once a year on a one-on-one basis, crossing paths in the hall, or at a meeting. But we were all together at this reception. We were all talking about finishing our PhDs, starting postdocs, figuring out what kind of jobs to apply for, and trying to balance personal concerns with career strategies. I think we were struck by the similarities in the challenges we were facing. Even though we didn’t all know each other very well, there were a lot of questions and issues that we had in common.”

What emerged from that reception was a loose affiliation of women scientists – mostly atmospheric chemists and climate scientists – that grew over time into a formal organization, the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN). “We felt there was a benefit to staying in touch with one another, and we thought it might benefit other women,” explains Holloway, who is the current president of the ESWN, a non-profit dedicated to “career development, peer mentoring and community building for women in the geosciences.”

Building a Network: Women Supporting Women in Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences

“At the reception we saw a bunch of our peers – people we’d normally see once a year on a one-on-one basis, crossing paths in the hall, or at a meeting. But we were all together at this reception … I think we were struck by the similarities in the challenges we were facing. Even though we didn’t all know each other very well, there were a lot of questions and issues that we had in common.” (Tracey Holloway)

The ESWN now has more than 3,000 members. It conducts workshops at major geoscience conferences on topics like navigating NSF grants, succeeding on the tenure track, and career opportunities beyond academia. It sponsors an open list of job postings in the Earth sciences. It has held networking receptions for early-career women scientists at recent AGU conferences. Holloway notes that the reach of the organization expanded and that recent ESWN professional workshops have had close to a 50/50 split of women and men in attendance. In addition, the ESWN continues to provide a forum for women scientists to discuss and debate a wide range of issues that have professional and personal dimensions – “professional questions that have a personal slant, and personal questions that have professional implications,” is how Holloway characterizes the discussion topics. “Questions that are too work-related to ask your mom, but too personal to ask your advisor or your boss,” she adds.

Because the ESWN grew out of connections made at that 2002 reception, many of the questions that arose early on related specifically to the field of atmospheric chemistry. “A lot of the early members were atmospheric chemists,” Holloway explains. “For atmospheric chemists, there is this question: do you fit better in an atmospheric science department, a chemistry department, or an engineering department? It’s an interdisciplinary field and trying to figure out what your next best step should be can be complicated because it may not be in the same field as your PhD program.”

Weighing the relative merits of atmospheric chemistry vs. chemical/environmental engineering vs. atmospheric/climate science is not a gender-specific concern. But, many of the other issues that came up among early members of the ESWN related directly to challenges faced by women in the field. There were questions about work-life balance, interviewing for jobs, having kids, breastfeeding at conferences, applying for fellowships – practical concerns that at first glance may appear minor but that can matter quite a bit to an early-career woman scientist.

“In graduate school I didn’t have a lot of female role models around me,” explains Hastings, who is now Vice President of the ESWN and an Associate Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Brown University. She recalls only two female professors in the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University, where she earned her PhD in 2004, “one who was very senior and other who came in as a tenured professor. Neither had children. So, it was hard to assess what my life would look like as an academic researcher… it dawned on me that there really wasn’t anyone who had the kind of life I imagined for myself. That realization helped plant the seeds for what would become the ESWN.”

Holloway had a similar experience as a PhD student at Princeton. “There were a few female students in the department when I arrived,” she recalls. “After they graduated, I think I was the only female student in the program for a short time. Certainly our lab was mostly male, but I always had access to great mentors and role models.”

Subjective Impressions from a Male-Dominated Field

“When I went to my first conferences, and later when I was on research teams, I started to look around and notice that there just weren’t that many other women. At conferences, for example, most of the people giving the talks were men.” (Erika Marin-Spiotta)

It is important to note that the ESWN did not coalesce around a list of grievances. Rather, its formation was a reflection of a stark reality in the fields of atmospheric, climate, and environmental science and engineering: there just weren’t many female role models in senior positions. “The women who formed the ESWN were all doing quite well in their fields and had a positive perspective,” Holloway stresses. “We came together because we valued the idea of connecting with one another, and because there were gender-specific issues we were dealing with that our male colleagues weren’t facing.”

Hastings, who had arrived at Princeton in the late-’90s after a one-year stint at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), does not remember any female scientists at the GFDL, “only female staff members. Tracey [Holloway] was a graduate student at Princeton during that time, and we both noticed that there were no other women around, no women ahead of us who we could take cues from.”

Dr. Christine Wiedinmyer, an atmospheric chemist and climate science researcher who attended Tulane as an undergraduate and earned a PhD in chemical engineering from UT Austin, came away from her academic experiences with the same impression. “I can’t remember any women at Tulane,” she says of the faculty composition. “None. And none of the postdocs; they were all men. When I was in the graduate program at UT, I think the department had 35-40 faculty members, and there was only one woman. There were some women faculty in civil engineering, but there was only one in chemical engineering.”

Dr. Erika Marin-Spiotta, a biogeochemist at UW-Madison who studies the effects of climate on the environment, had somewhat different experiences as an undergraduate at Stanford and in her PhD program at UC Berkeley, but she was still struck by a notable scarcity of women as she advanced in her career. “As an undergrad there were female biology majors,” she says. “In my graduate program at UC Berkley I had a female advisor and we had a female majority in the lab. So there were a lot of women in my program, and I had female professors and mentors. When I went to my first conferences, and later when I was on research teams, I started to look around and notice that there just weren’t that many other women. At conferences, for example, most of the people giving the talks were men.”

Data Points: Where Are All of the Women?

“There are a lot of women in Earth science fields and in the ESWN who are in a department with no other women. Or, there may be no tenured female faculty in their department. I’m surprised that’s still true, but that’s the reality.” (Meredith Hastings)

Hastings and Holloway weren’t alone in wondering why so few women seemed to be pursuing careers in atmospheric and climate science in the early 2000s. Clear data on the number of female researchers working in the fields of atmospheric chemistry and climate science is difficult to find. But there is a body of research on the gender imbalance in the broader category of geosciences and plenty of anecdotal evidence from those working in the field.

In 2003 the NSF in partnership with the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) sponsored a workshop entitled, “Where are the Women Geoscience Professors?” and published a report on the findings. Using NSF data, the report concluded that the number of women earning degrees in the geosciences had increased steadily from 1974 to 2001. In spite of that trend, a survey of American Geosciences Institute (AGI) data showed that women made up less than 15% of the geosciences faculty, with atmospheric science and chemistry at the lower end of the spectrum (10%). The report also pointed to a “leaky pipeline” for women in the geosciences, reflected in the decreasing percentage of women studying and working in geoscience fields at academic institutions.

According to a more recent report by the AGI Geosciences Workforce Program, women’s overall participation in environmental and geoscience occupations did not improve from 2003 to 2009, hovering just below 30%. In atmospheric and space science the number was roughly half that, at 15%. A 2014 US Geological Survey report on Women in the Workforce: Trends in USGS and Beyond provides a more detailed breakdown of the numbers based on National Academy of Sciences estimates for the number of men and women in the US labor force holding doctoral degrees for select STEM professions.

PhD Field of Study
Men in Workforce
Women in Workforce
Percentage of Women in Workforce
Biological sciences130,00070,00035%
Earth/atmosphere/ocean sciences18,0004,00018%
Computer/information sciences21,0003,00012.5%

A complicating factor in assessing accurately the number of women employed in atmospheric, climate, and even environmental sciences is the interdisciplinary nature of these fields. Atmospheric chemistry, which is a relatively well-defined area of study, draws on several disciplines, including geology, oceanography, meteorology, and other environmental sciences. The tools and modeling techniques central to atmospheric chemistry are integral to research in atmospheric science, which is often paired with oceanic science. Climate science or climatology is a branch of atmospheric science that incorporates geology, physics, and a broad swath of the Earth sciences, including atmospheric chemistry and elements of chemical and environmental engineering.

Professional designations, departmental appointments, and self-descriptions for those working in these fields range from meteorologist and climatologist, to atmospheric and oceanic scientist, atmospheric chemist, and Earth scientist. For example, Marin-Spiotta earned her PhD from the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management program at UC Berkeley, conducts research in the area of climate change, and has a primary appointment in the Department of Geography at UW-Madison. “We’re very interdisciplinary, so it is hard to define,” she explains. “I don’t have one word to describe it other than saying ‘geography,’ which itself is very interdisciplinary. Sometimes I will identify myself as a geographer… sometimes I call myself an ecosystem ecologist, or a biogeochemist, or an Earth scientist. If I’m talking to someone from outside of the scientific community, I’ll just say I’m in environmental science. It’s hard to define because it is hard to define. The research I do is in the area of understanding climate change and its effects. But I don’t call myself a climate scientist because I’m not a climatologist or atmospheric scientist. I’m looking at biogeochemical interactions and the influence of changes on climate.”

As difficult as it may be to determine the exact number of women employed in atmospheric and climate science, it’s abundantly clear that women are underrepresented in these fields. According to Hastings, “There are a lot of women in Earth science fields and in the ESWN who are in a department with no other women. Or, there may be no tenured female faculty in their department. I’m surprised that’s still true, but that’s the reality.”

As the principal investigator on an NSF ADVANCE Partnership grant to address sexual harassment in the geosciences, Marin-Spiotta has looked further into the data. “In academic geosciences you’ve probably got about 20% women who are professors and/or researchers in areas like Earth science, atmospheric science, oceanic science, geology, and other physical sciences. There are going to be more women who are assistant professors than associate professors, which is the next level up. And when you go to full professorships, women are probably in single digits nationally. I’ve looked at departmental websites and seen departments where they have 40 faculty and only two women faculty members. In my own department, I’m only the third woman ever to get tenure. So, it’s fair to conclude that there are real obstacles for women in academia.”

Is there a Hiring Problem in Atmospheric and Climate Science?

“I’ve looked at departmental websites and seen departments where they have 40 faculty and only two women faculty members In my own department, I’m only the third woman ever to get tenure. So, it’s fair to conclude that there are real obstacles for women in academia.” (Erika Marin-Spiotta)

Hastings has looked at the job applications process in her field and what she’s seen does not look like gender equity. “It’s not like we’re getting an equal distribution of men and women applying for open jobs and somehow women aren’t getting hired. Women may be 20% of the applicants for a tenure track position. In some cases I’ve seen that number be as low as 10%. That’s something I’ve paid more attention to in the last few years. I try to encourage women to apply for these jobs, to go on interviews, and figure out if the job is a good fit.”

Dr. Emily Fischer, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University who serves on the Leadership Board of the ESWN, is also concerned with how new positions are being filled. “Every hiring decision should be taken seriously,” she says. “We need to better understand whether women are leaving a field like atmospheric science intentionally or unintentionally. If there are no women applying for jobs in the field, why is that? Is it because there aren’t any women on the faculty in a graduate program? Or is it because there was no attempt to reach out to women candidates? In specialized fields, training with the right faculty can be important. So, if we’re not training enough women, is it because the six faculty members in the US who are at the top of that specialization aren’t particularly good at training women? We should be spending the time to answer these questions and then we’ll have some solutions.”

Paths to Careers in Atmospheric and Climate Science: Obstacles and Opportunities

“I might be the only person to come out of my little high school who’s ever studied Atmospheric Science.” (Dr. Emily Fischer)

Fischer knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue a career in the science of weather and climate. But it wasn’t until arrived at college that she realized she could get a degree in atmospheric science. “There may have been some general STEM initiatives at that point,” she recalls. “But I was in a high school in rural Rhode Island that was in danger of losing accreditation for space issues at that time. And there just wasn’t a lot of exposure to women in non-standard career paths.”

Fischer had an aptitude for science and entered Colby College in Maine prepared to declare a chemistry/physics double major. “I didn’t know that you could study atmospheric science as an undergrad,” she explains. “I was a talented student – I graduated second in my high-school class. My guidance counselor suggested that I should go to the University of Rhode Island. I wasn’t given any real guidance beyond that.”

After her first year at Colby, Fischer was able to transfer to the University of British Columbia (UBC), a school that offered a major in atmospheric science. She went on to earn a master’s in Earth Sciences at the University of New Hampshire, and a PhD in Atmospheric Science at the University of Washington in Seattle. “I might be the only person to come out of my little high school who’s ever studied Atmospheric Science,” she says, only half-joking.

Fischer’s story gets at one of the barriers that may be preventing women from pursuing advanced degrees and careers in atmospheric science: a lack of guidance and absence of role models who might steer scientifically inclined young women toward schools with prominent atmospheric science departments. A typical high school curriculum includes instruction in biology, chemistry, and physics, but may only touch informally on the Earth and environmental sciences. “To the extent that we teach environmental science at that level, it tends to be treated as a soft science,” Hastings explains. “For me, Earth science was a way of taking my interest in chemistry and applying it to something practical. I think we want our kids to have a solid background in math, physics, biology, and chemistry, but Earth and environmental science can be part of that, and it would help bring more people into the field.”

Hastings was fortunate enough to receive early exposure to the geosciences. “My formative experience was an eighth-grade physical science teacher who was an oceanographer by training,” she recounts. “He had a way of relating everything he taught to the ocean. I already liked science and math, but learning to connect science to the world around me was exciting.” Hastings applied and was accepted to the MAST Academy, a magnet school in South Florida with a specialized curriculum in marine science and technology. “The school was located near the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) at the University of Miami and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab,” she explains. “I was next door and across the street from scientists at Sea World, RSMAS, and NOAA.”

In contrast, Holloway did not decide to pursue a career in atmospheric science until she’d gone through several personal realizations. As an undergrad at Brown, she had a friend who had strong views on women in science. “Her dad was a computer scientist,” Holloway explains, “and she believed that more women would – or should – go into science fields if it were not for certain norms and pressures that socialized girls out of those classes. It was a new idea to me. It made me question some of my own experiences, and it certainly opened my eyes to giving science more of a chance.”

Holloway had planned to major in history or political science; she graduated with a degree in applied mathematics. A summer internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1994 cemented her interest in atmospheric science. “The same summer I had applied to work at the FBI, at a New York State prosecutor’s office, and at a bank in Chicago,” she continues. “But once I started at NASA, I realized that atmospheric science drew on many of the same mathematical modeling tools that I’d been working with as an undergraduate. Suddenly, all the pieces came together.”

Wiedinmyer and Marin-Spiotta have somewhat similar stories in that they both initially gravitated toward biology, a physical science known to attract a relatively large number of female students. Marin-Spiotta majored in biology at Stanford but was turned off by the pre-med focus of the program. She did a research internship at the Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey during her junior year and changed the focus of her major to environmental science. “I didn’t have the kind of options that students might have now,” she says. “These interdisciplinary environmental programs only started appearing when I was in college. That may be why a lot of people have come into environmental science via biology. And there are probably a lot of climate scientists whose undergraduate degree is in physics rather than climate science because those programs are relatively new too.”

Wiedinmyer was initially a biomedical engineering major at Tulane looking toward medical school. She changed course after hearing a talk by the head of the chemical engineering department. “He said something like, ‘There are a bunch of you in here that are in biomedical engineering. Let me tell you something about biomedical engineering: you either have to go to graduate school or to medical school, and there really are very few jobs for undergrads. If you come into chemical engineering, you get all of your premed prerequisites done so you can go to medical school. But if you choose not to, you can get a really high-paying job as an undergrad.’ I think thirty of us transferred into chemical engineering that day.”

Structural Impediments and Invisible Barriers: Identifying the Problems

Wiedinmyer moved on to a graduate program in chemical engineering at UT Austin, and she remembers preparing for her first academic conference. “I asked my supervisor for advice so I would know what to expect, and I wanted to know what I should wear. He told me that he typically wore khakis, a button-down shirt, and a tie to conferences. That wasn’t very helpful to me. What I needed was the perspective of a woman. It may seem trivial, but it’s a topic that comes up again and again: What to wear? How to act? What is appropriate behavior? The answers to those questions may be different for men and women.”

In isolation, an anecdote like that may not seem weighty enough to warrant more than passing consideration. But experts in the field of STEM education for women point to an accumulation of minor discouragements, inconveniences, and alienating experiences as reasons why women may be disinclined to pursue advanced degrees and careers in fields like atmospheric and climate science. In addition, there are also larger structural issues and outright and implicit biases in academia and research science that can impede the advancement of female scientists and may account for the leakiness of the pipeline that runs from bachelor’s to doctoral programs.

“I’ve heard people openly say that they have doubts about someone doing certain roles in atmospheric science related to fieldwork, specifically because the person in question is a woman.” (Emily Fischer)

“I think programs lose a lot of women at the point between master’s and PhD programs for a variety of reasons, and the story is different for every student,” offers Emily Fischer, who surveyed the research into factors that discourage women in STEM fields as part of an NSF-funded project. “I’ve seen research that shows that there are problems in the way reference letters for women are written,” she explains. “That becomes particularly important in the transition from graduate school and postdocs to early-career faculty positions, which is a make-or-break time in academia.”

Fischer has encountered more blatant examples of bias, including a situation where an adviser undermined the credibility of a female grad student’s work by implying that her work was only getting attention because she was an attractive woman. “I’ve also heard people openly say that they have doubts about someone doing certain roles in atmospheric science related to fieldwork, specifically because the person in question is a woman,” Fischer continues. “These are pretty obvious examples of bias. You might hear it when people are comparing two largely identical CVs from two candidates for a position, one of whom is a woman. There may be questions about whether or not a woman would be the ‘right fit,’ and whether it’s even worth bothering to interview the female candidate.”

Marin-Spiotta points out that, “There are still places where women feel unwelcome. You might be the only woman in a department or in a professional setting, and there can be men talking about things you really don’t want to be listening to as a woman. It makes you feel like you don’t belong.”

She and others point to geoscience fieldwork expeditions and the potential for harassment in these informal settings. “I’ve been fortunate with my fieldwork experiences,” she says. “But, through the ESWN and the AGU, I’ve done work on sexual harassment. The stories I hear about what women deal with as students, as researchers, as faculty members, and as workers going out into the field are horrible. That should be an easy thing to identify and fix because we know it’s wrong.”

Even in the absence of outright harassment, fieldwork can be uncomfortable for a woman in a male-dominated discipline, as Wiedinmyer recounts. “I’ve been in a fieldwork situation where eight of us shared a big bunkhouse, and with the exception of me, it was all men. I didn’t even think twice about it. Now I look back and I think that that was kind of inappropriate. I didn’t mind at the time, but there was no one to point out that that might not have been the best arrangement.”

Networking Solutions: Expert Advice on Advancing the Position of Women in Atmospheric and Climate Science

“Implicit bias plays a big role. I see it everywhere. But it commonly isn’t any big, obvious action. It’s more like death by a thousand cuts.” (Christine Wiedinmyer)

Through their involvement as leaders in the ESWN and their independent work, the women interviewed for this story have encountered, identified, and presented prescriptions for overcoming a range of barriers that feed the gender imbalance in atmospheric and climate science. While there isn’t one clear solution, a consensus strategy appears to have coalesced around the institutional nature of academic science. This strategy is based on a logical progression of reforms that starts by promoting more women to senior faculty positions. As young women see more women working in a particular field, they’re more likely to gravitate toward that field.

At the same time, the presence of conscious and unconscious biases that disadvantage women should be acknowledged and addressed. If female graduate students aren’t viewed as viable candidates for prestigious fellowships and top-tier research posts; if their work isn’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts; and if they feel isolated and uncomfortable on fieldwork excursions, the metaphorical pipeline is likely to remain leaky. Add to that the inherent challenges of completing a doctorate in a competitive field, the potential for harassment from colleagues, and the realities of an academic hierarchy that was designed by and for men, and you end up with a critical mass of disincentives that amount to an imposing barrier to entry for women.

Wiedinmyer puts it this way: “Implicit bias plays a big role. I see it everywhere. But it commonly isn’t any big, obvious action. It’s more like death by a thousand cuts.”

“I’ve known men who have turned down the job of their dreams because it didn’t fit their wife’s career. But there is a lot of evidence that women still carry the load more in terms of the professional consequences of their personal choices.” (Tracey Holloway)

Holloway agrees that gender bias remains a pernicious problem. “I’ve known women who were criticized because their voice was too high pitched and they didn’t sound authoritative enough,” she says. “I’ve also heard from women who were hit on by an advisor, which made them question whether the good things they did were actually good, and whether the negative things they did were actually negative. When these kinds of things are happening across the whole community of women, it takes its toll. If we can change the culture of science to be more inclusive, then we can redefine what women who are entering the field can expect as they move forward.”

Drawing on the reporting in a January 2017 feature in the AGU publication Eos titled “Data Illuminate a Mountain of Molehills Facing Women Scientists,” Holloway concedes that even in the absence of overt discrimination, there are numerous factors and decisions that may deter women from advancing in the complex and hierarchical world of academic science. But she’s also measured in her assessment of the situation. “You have to be careful about generalizing with these issues,” she explains. “I’ve known men who have turned down the job of their dreams because it didn’t fit their wife’s career, so it’s not one-sided. But there is a lot of evidence that women still carry the load more in terms of the professional consequences of their personal choices.”

The importance of mentors and role models in challenging fields like atmospheric and climate science cannot be understated. This is a foundational premise of the ESWN, and mentoring is one of the key functions it has served for its members over the past decade and a half. “You learn a lot how to become a scientist from role models, and that can be just as important as formal and informal mentoring,” Fischer stresses. “I think about Meredith Hastings, whom I got to know through the ESWN. She was just a couple of years ahead of me, and that was great. I could look at what she had done, what kinds of things she had applied for, ask her about her experiences, and come away feeling like it was something I could do. There were a handful of women at that level just above me who I was able to learn from by watching and asking questions.”

Hastings admits, “I wasn’t thinking that much about role models when I entered as an undergraduate… a lot of the experiences I had in college and in high school I chalked up to being the youngest person in the room at the time, or the only high school student or undergraduate in a particular situation. I never thought of the gender dynamics. In retrospect, I look at some of those experiences and I see the things that were very symptomatic of gender bias.”

A Hopeful Look Toward the Future

There is evidence to suggest that the situation for women in atmospheric and climate science is improving, and that steps are being taken to level the playing field. The stakes are high. Much of the crucial research into the causes and effects of climate change, a looming existential threat to our survival on this planet, is done by atmospheric scientists and chemists. These are areas of science in which problems stemming from climate change are identified and confronted with the hope of engineering workable solutions. While the subject of climate change may be controversial in political circles, in the scientific community there is consensus around the idea that we need our best minds working on climate change, and some of those minds certainly belong to women.

“The universities that encourage more women to enter STEM fields will become leaders in this area,” Fischer emphasizes. “Smart, talented people want to work at the leading institutions. So the leading institutions get the best people, some of whom will be women, and those women will help to close the gender gap. I’m hopeful about that.”

In the 15 years since their panel on “Policy-Relevant Versus Policy-Driven Atmospheric Chemistry Research” convened at the AGU conference in DC, Hastings and Holloway have also seen reason for hope. “Because of our work in the ESWN I’m aware of a lot of the specifics,” says Hastings. “In terms of faculty in atmospheric science, it’s about 20% female. So, it has probably doubled in the last 15 to 20 years. From 10% to 20% is a big jump, but it’s still only 20%. Where I’ve really noticed a change from the early days is at conferences. Often it felt like Tracey and I were the only two women or part of just a handful of women in a room of a hundred scientists back in the early 2000s. Over the years that’s become less common.”

On a more personal note, Hastings recalls the experience of planning for the birth of her first daughter. “It literally didn’t dawn on me until I was walking into my chair’s office to work out the details that there was no precedent for this in my department. Despite having had women faculty in the department for some years, none of them had children, and no one had taken time off to have a child. While I was in his office it dawned on him too, and he said, ‘Actually, I think this is great. And I think this is great for our graduate students to see.’”

About the Author : Matt Ashare is a writer with 25 years of experience in publishing. He was an editor at the Boston Phoenix and a contributor to other publications, including Rolling Stone, Spin, and the Village Voice. He now teaches journalism at Randolph College, and occasionally writes a column for the Central Virginia weekly The Burg.