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Jessica Ball, PhD – Mendenhall Postdoctoral Fellow, US Geological Survey


Jessica Ball is a geologist and volcanologist who researches stratovolcano hydrothermal systems as a Mendenhall Postdoctoral Fellow at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, CA. Prior to that, she worked at the Washington DC policy office of the Geological Society of America, where she was a Science Policy Fellow. Dr. Ball holds a PhD in Geology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo and a Bachelor of Science in Geology from the College of William & Mary. She is an expert in volcanic stability and hazards related to hydrothermal alteration processes. She also writes about her work and issues in the Earth and environmental sciences at Magma Cum Laude, a blog that is part of the American Geophysical Union’s Geoblogosphere.

Interview Questions

[] In a post on Magma Cum Laude for International Women’s Day in 2013, you made it clear that your interest in geology/volcanology was encouraged and supported along the way by your parents, teachers, and college professors. You also mention a formative primary school trip to the American Association of University Women, and in graduate school you took note of the ratio of female-to-male professors in your department (5/13). At what point did you became aware that a female geologist/volcanologist might be a rare thing?

[Dr. Ball] I think it began to sink in once I left my undergraduate department and started working with geoscience professionals in my first job. But it really hit home when I got to graduate school and began attending larger professional conferences. My undergrad professors didn’t treat different genders any differently and were equally encouraging to all of us. But my graduate advisor was a woman who’d started her career in volcanology when things were very different, and learning from her experiences made me more aware of the disparity. Many of the most visible senior volcanologists are men, and it’s hard to break into the old boys’ club if you’re a young woman. I was fortunate that my advisor was very much a part of a strong network of women in the field. Had I not been able to take advantage of her connections, things might have gone very differently.

[] From what you’ve encountered in your work, is it your sense that women remain underrepresented in volcanology/geology?

[Dr. Ball] Women are absolutely underrepresented. I recently did a count of women at two of the volcano observatories in the USGS, and it turns out that women make up about 1/3 of the staff scientists at both. This is on par with the balance of professors at my graduate school – 2/6 people actively researching volcanology were women – which is worse than my undergrad department, although none of those professors was a volcanologist.

I was unhappy to discover that I had fallen into the cognitive trap where people perceive a group that is 1/3 women to have an equal gender balance; I had thought that my current workplace was better balanced. I also suspect that more of our early-career (read temporary) researchers are female, although I haven’t crunched the numbers on that one.

[] The data I’ve seen suggests that women outnumber men when it comes to earning degrees in the physical sciences. However, women make up only about 27% of the total number of environmental scientists and geoscientists. Do you think this disparity is just a holdover from a previous era in which women were discouraged from entering these fields? Or, are there factors at play that might be discouraging capable women who have earned degrees in the geosciences from pursuing careers in the field?

[Dr. Ball] I think there are several factors that play a part. One of them is that holdover attitude – I haven’t encountered blatant examples myself, but I know several women who were told by men, usually men who held power over their careers, that they weren’t suited for geoscience jobs because they were women. Even unconscious bias plays a part: there are studies that say that men and women will rate women lower in job interviews (National Academy of Science; 2012), and that they will promote women in different ways in recommendation letters (Nature Geoscience; 2016).

I know other women who became discouraged from getting or keeping field-based jobs because of the potential for harassment – often from their co-workers. Geoscientists work in remote and dangerous situations, and these are often more hostile for women than men. A study that came out in 2014 described many instances of female scientists facing harassment and assault during fieldwork (Nature; 2014). Even women in academic positions where fieldwork does not feature heavily are subject to sexual harassment that men do not have to deal with, which is something the Atlantic reported on in July of 2016 (“How Women Are Harassed Out of Science”).

Finally, there are work-life balance issues at play. Women in relationships (with or without children) take on more domestic duties than men, but particularly when it comes to childcare. Having a child can essentially put a woman’s career on hold. If she tries to keep up her previous levels of engagement with her job duties, it can stress her abilities, and her time and energy to an absurd degree. Academia in this country is not a family-friendly environment, with very few exceptions, and geoscience is largely conducted in an academic setting. Combine that with the propensity of geoscientists to go to the field for long stretches and travel frequently for conferences, talks, and collaborations, and you have a much more difficult environment for women than men.

I myself am unmarried and without children by choice. While that works for me because it eliminates the challenges associated with having a family and a career at the same time, that’s not an option or an inclination for others, and I do think it’s unfair to women in our field. Some do manage a balance between the two and do it beautifully, but I don’t think any of them would say it’s easy.

[] In a similar vein, fieldwork can involve making due with whatever accommodations are available. You see this in movies, usually as a comic element, when there’s a woman scientist doing fieldwork. A female geologist or archeologist, maybe even a volcanologist, goes out into the field and finds, much to her dismay, that there are no practical accommodations – bathrooms, sleeping arrangements, etc… – for women. Is this something you’ve encountered, and have organizations like the USGS taken steps to remediate this problem?

[Dr. Ball] That is often the case simply because going into the field involves remote locations with limited services/infrastructure. I and most women I know take it on ourselves to provide our own accommodations when we can. When we can’t, we simply have to make noise about the situation until it gets remedied. Government organizations like mine follow a set of professional standards that mean we’re entitled to private, individual housing no matter what, unless there’s extremely limited funding. Sanitary issues tend to get dealt with on an individual basis (if extra equipment or supplies or setups are necessary, it usually falls on the woman/women to deal with it). Up to this point, two of my four scientific supervisors have been women, and the men were both used to mixed-gender field excursions, so it’s not been a big problem for me. Yet!

[] What advice and/or guidance would you give to women who are considering a career in geology, geoscience, and/or volcanology? Are there particular women’s professional organizations or strategies for overcoming gender biases that you’ve found to be particularly helpful? Are there particular areas of specialization in the broader field of Earth Science that seem to be more accommodating to women?

[Dr. Ball] Recognize that, while geology does do better in some ways than other sciences, we still have a long way to go before we have a good balance between men and women (while recognizing that the challenges faced by women are more numerous and difficult to overcome than those for men in the field). Volcanology in particular can feel overwhelmingly male at times, and the adage that “you can’t be what you can’t see” is true even for those of us who have been around for a while. It can be discouraging at times. There are heavily entrenched attitudes (sometimes unconscious, sometimes overt) that women aren’t cut out for volcanology because they’re too weak or not smart enough or not analytical enough or too emotional… or a whole host of other dumb reasons.

But, it’s also important to remember that the women in volcanology are largely a tough, committed, wonderful group who recognize the need to support those who come after us. We (and I include myself) are actively working to eliminate the old attitudes about women. I work and have worked with women I would happily hold up as role models for future volcanologists. And in the geosciences, there are several organizations available to advocate for women: the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) and the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG). Both are great resources for mentoring, career development, networking, and initiatives that support women in the geosciences in general.

[] Mentoring and the support offered by organizations like the ESWN and AWG are one way to make more women feel at home in the Earth sciences. But you also play a role in that through your blogging about gender issues in STEM fields. I’m thinking of a post like “The clothes don’t make the scientist,” which takes a critical look at the bias inherent in press descriptions of a female scientist’s looks and clothing, which is not something that’s typical for male scientists. That post isn’t “mentoring,” per se, and it’s different from networking, but it would seem to serve a similar purpose. What are your thoughts on that?

[Dr. Ball] I absolutely agree – it’s the reason I wrote the post. I do see blogging as a way to mentor from a distance, potentially reaching a much bigger audience than one-on-one contact. But I also see blogging as a way to air the dirty laundry of the scientific community. Many gender issues (such as sexual harassment) have, up to this point, largely not been dealt with because people allow them to be brushed under the rug. It’s well past time for the whisper networks that women have previously used to warn others about problems with peers or superiors or working conditions to become open, loud conversations. This is starting to happen (the astronomy community is an excellent example), but it’s tricky because the people who are most likely to want to speak up are also the ones who stand to lose the most if they do. Blogging about my own experiences is one way to normalize that kind of behavior so it’s not considered inappropriate or grounds for penalization.

[] The professionals I’ve spoken to are, like yourself, part of self-selecting group: they were and are aware of gender biases and in some cases overt discrimination in their fields, but they were not deterred. Other than increasing awareness among women that they should be prepared to encounter a certain amount of bias and discrimination, are there specific steps you think should be taken to mitigate the effects of implicit and explicit gender bias?

[Dr. Ball] I think it needs to start at the top, with people who are in position to manage and hire scientists. Simply reminding people to be aware that it exists – and in some cases providing the same studies I mentioned might be necessary – is a good first step. But the reminders need to be regular and continued. Running an occasional workshop on gender bias, which is often what happens, attracts a self-selecting crowd and doesn’t keep the issue in the front of people’s minds. Hearing a supervisor or head of a hiring committee talk about it regularly, however, drives home the point that it needs to happen and keeps it in the front of people’s minds. Grassroots efforts are important, but as long as people in power continue to allow such biases to exist and be ignored, people at the bottom won’t make much leeway.

[] Is there anything further that you’d like to add that you feel would be helpful to women who are considering a degree and/or a career in the Earth sciences?

[Dr. Ball] Think carefully about what your goals and what kind of job you want before taking on degrees (undergraduate or advanced). There are jobs out there that don’t require a doctorate or even a master’s degree. Graduate school is not an easy commitment. The higher you go, the fewer jobs there are to compete for. Because volcanology is a relatively small field, I know almost everyone I compete against for jobs, and some of them are close friends. Be prepared to adapt yourself and your degree to work outside of the traditional academic track because there aren’t enough professorships for everyone.

Geoscience, like many other careers, can be both incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding. My love of volcanoes has taken me to amazing places and helped me understand more about the very planet we live on, and I wouldn’t trade that for much. But it hasn’t been an easy road to get here. There are things I would like to see changed about my field, but I am glad to be a part of making those changes happen, and I support any young women who want to join me.