Nina Johnson
Events and Programs

The fight for feminism in STEM

"From that day, I have been committed to helping other women be successful in science."

As an undergraduate, Geraldine Richmond was acing her organic chemistry class — a notoriously difficult course meant to weed out prospective medical students.

"It's a really hard course," Richmond said. "I wanted to do research for the professor that was teaching it. I went to ask if I could join his research group. He said 'no.' And yet, he took a student who was getting a 'C' in the course, a male."

She sought advice from another professor who told her, "he doesn't take women in his group," regardless of merit.

"From that day, I have been committed to helping other women be successful in science," Richmond said. "There continue to be problems all through your career, and they surprise me every time they show up. We still have a lot of battles to fight."

"They were not getting invited to talks, they were not getting invited to meetings, they were not getting honors, they were not getting awards — and yet they were just as successful as the men were."

Dr. Richmond is now renowned for discovering key molecular characteristics of water surfaces, earning her the 2013 National Medal of Science in Chemistry. She is currently University of Oregon's presidential chair in science and a chemistry professor. She told students at an event at Portland State University that achieving success meant pushing against biases in science that hold women back.

"When I got to be mid-career, in the late 1990s, it was really bothering me that women at my career level, [who] were tenured, were not getting recognition for their work," Richmond said. "They were not getting invited to talks, they were not getting invited to meetings, they were not getting honors, they were not getting awards — and yet they were just as successful as the men were."

"Then I started also noticing there was this kind of jealousy thing going on, of people resenting the fact that the woman might be more successful than the male," she added.

That led to the formation of an organization called COACh, which started as "the Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists." The grass-roots organization is working to bolster the success and leadership of women scientists and engineers.

"We created COACh as a series of workshops for women scientists — and men, too — on issues we don't usually learn in science," she said.

COACh workshops teach participants how to negotiate, how to communicate effectively, and how women in leadership positions can cope with the challenges they face. For younger women faculty, the program focuses on career launch and acceleration, how to mentor, and how to achieve work-life balance.

In the past 20 years, 20,000 participants have gone through COACh's pro-bono programs. In 2014, the program expanded to developing countries, serving women as well as under-represented groups.

"I [still] get discouraged but, at this point, I feel like I at least can do something, some little thing to make things better for the person or institution," she said.

Despite the challenges for women in sciences, the organization's motto is to "be relentlessly pleasant."

"At this point, I honestly believe that at most of our universities, the top people get it," she said. "The problem is in the trenches, down in the department, in the laboratories. How you can lead a university and have your message make it down into the trenches is a challenge."

"I [still] get discouraged but, at this point, I feel like I at least can do something, some little thing to make things better for the person or institution."

Richmond gave the example of two candidates applying to a post-doctorate position with five stated job requirements and noted: "A woman feels she needs to have all five," to apply. "But a man will apply with just one."

Richmond identified an easy solution to this "lack of confidence" - outreach from faculty to prospective female candidates.

"Women are much more likely to apply if someone gives them a welcoming sign, that they would be welcomed in the department," she said. When hiring for faculty positions, "we need to be much more proactive in encouraging under-represented groups to apply. It's a talent pool that we desperately need."

Connections and relationships are also crucial to success in the form of mentorship. 

"I look at mentorship as three categories: a coach, a sponsor, a long-term mentor. You need all three. Or you need one that does all three," she said.

"A sponsor is the one that is your advocate. They are out there cheerleading for you. They are writing letter recommendations for you," she added. "Your coach is someone that coaches on something short-term, whether it be what course to take or writing a grant proposal or writing a paper. The mentor is more long-term."

Richmond said the key is in the approach. "I suggest you go with the lower hanging fruit first. Say, 'gosh, I'd really like your advice,' on something that would fall under the coaching category. If that relationship then develops, then it can move more naturally into a mentorship," she said.

"[Eventually,] you can say, 'you've been a great mentor, do you mind if I come back again another time?'" she added. "As it develops, you can make it a little more formal over time."

For a successful mentorship, both sides need to be on the same page, according to Richmond.

"I think it's critically important to understand both roles. The mentor does not tell the mentee what to do — the mentor guides," she said. "As a mentee, you need to bring the issues to the mentor so that they understand what you really want to know."

Richmond said this could be a tricky balance. Scientists, as natural problem solvers, may struggle as guides. And students must expect to be active participants rather than "sit in the office and [expect] the mentor will pour stuff out."

Another concern Richmond continues to hear from her female students is that having children could be detrimental to their careers.

"There was something about having a kid that changed me into somebody else [who] protected that child over anything else. So then, if somebody said something like that to me, I would just say, 'oh, get over it.' Because for me there was a kind of power in having a child," Richmond said.

"I tell women you have a lot of balls in the air — but this is your crystal ball, you don't drop it," she said of prioritizing parenting. "Don't let anybody tell you to put it aside. I think things are changing a bit. I think it's slow, but I think there is much more of an appreciation, especially from the men [who] want to be fathers too. They want to help."

Richmond said although she may not have the perfect work-life balance, daily exercise has worked as a stress reliever for managing her work and home life.

"I have always exercised for at least an hour in the morning, even when the kids were babies. It really helped ground me to do something that was strong and was for me and would help my children," she said. "We all have to figure out [what] gives us that power and that strength to say [I'm] doing the right thing."