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Kelly Doherty and Brittany Farb/Medill

Kathryn McFarland of Abbott Laboratories, left, Evalyn Gates of University of Chicago, Katherine Faber of Northwestern University and Brenda Russell of University of Illinois at Chicago share personal experiences navigating their science career.

Bridging the gap between men and women in science

by Jen Kim, Kelly C. Doherty and Brittany Farb
April 20, 2010


Jen Kim/Medill

Director of the Women in Science and Engineering program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Veronica Arreola, speaks to women about mentorship opportunities at the first Women in Science Symposium at Northwestern University.


Jen Kim/Medill

According to the National Science Foundation, the median yearly salary for woman in science and engineering occupations is $65,000—for men, it's $79,000.

It’s a holiday largely unrecognized, but maybe not for long.

Chicago celebrated its inaugural Women in Science Day on Saturday with the first annual symposium dedicated to bringing together women from different science backgrounds. The goal was to educate, motivate and inspire professional and student scientists and engineers by openly discussing the victories and challenges of working in these traditionally male-dominated fields.

As an audience of nearly 200 gathered in Northwestern University’s Thorne Auditorium, Young-Kee Kim, deputy director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, joked with the crowd, “It’s really good to see so many of us get together. I see two, three, four males in the audience. Now you understand what most women feel.”

This is the reason the Chicago Council on Science and Technology and the Association for Women in Science-Chicago decided to host this event, she continued.

The symposium featured several women speakers, many of whom achieved great success and recognition in their fields. They shared varying experiences on facing obstacles in their careers, gender biases in the workplace, as well as future opportunities in science. However, the primary message, echoed throughout the day was the same—women need to support one another.

Women make up about 42 percent of the science and engineering workforce in the U.S., according to the most recent data from the National Science Foundation, a 20 percent increase from a decade ago.  Still, they are heavily underrepresented in fields like chemistry and engineering as well as in management positions.

Fewer than 30 percent of women are employed as physical scientists such as chemists or physicists. Moreover, female scientists and engineers comprise only 19 percent of managers and 15 percent of top-level managers in business and industry.

Chicago, however, is a particularly good place for women who are seeking careers in science and engineering, said Dr. Joy Ramos, a member of the Association for Women in science. “There are many opportunities that people aren’t aware of.”

Chicago boasts two national laboratories—Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory; museums, including the Museum of Science and Industry; and research institutions such as the University of Chicago and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. “It’s pretty unusual for the Midwest,” she said.

In addition to putting on large-scale events like the symposium, Ramos’ association has put a lot of effort into smaller outreach activities such as mentoring applicants in the annual citywide science fair hosted by the Museum of Science and Industry and partnering with smaller organizations to get girls involved in local science programs.

And it seems those initiatives are working. “There has been an increasing enrollment of female students in the sciences in the Chicago area,” she said.

Event sponsors Abbott Laboratories and Baxter International Inc. are also based in the city.

Kathryn McFarland, director of strategic initiatives for Abbott Laboratories' global pharmaceutical research and development, has been rising through the ranks at the Lake County-based company for 30 years.

In addition to project implementation, McFarland said, she has worked hard to mentor and help develop women at the healthcare company. “Compared to when I started working, we’ve seen huge progress in advancing the role of women in science,” she said. “It’s like night and day.”

One major improvement was the addition of Abbott’s daycare facility, the biggest in Illinois, she said.  The company also focuses attention on  leadership development, mentoring and countrywide employee network groups such as Women's Leaders in Action, which counts McFarland and almost 5,000 others  as members.

“We want the best talent,” she averred. “If you look at pharmaceutical marketing, 60 percent of the pharmaceutical decisions are made by women. If we don’t understand our market, it won’t be good business.”

While the number of women and men employed at Abbott is about evenly split, she said, “Recently there has been an increase in the number of female corporate officers and executives.”

McFarland advocated the symposium, because it “provides role models, so people can see other women in action and also to network.”

Several local organizations set up informational booths in the lobby, where guests were able to inquire about various mentorship programs and job opportunities.

Veronica Arreola, director of the Women in Science and Engineering program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the mission of her group is to mentor women who have strong science skills but aren’t sure what to do with them.

In general, people aren’t “educated enough or don’t know how to talk to our kids, especially girls, about the amazing things that science and engineering can hold for them,” she said.

The media and entertainment world may also add to this lack of conversation.

“In the media, science is focused really on crime scene shows or medical shows,” Arreola said. “There’s nothing really in pop culture that talks about the scientist who’s doing that basic cutting edge research that will lead to those crime investigation breakthroughs.”

Still, Arreola believes the mentorship program has encouraged many female students to find careers in science, ranging from medicine to government. She pointed out there is a tendency for women to enter more “nurturing” science fields like health and biology.

According to the Department of Labor, women outnumber men in occupations like registered nurses, biological scientists and physical therapists.

In 2006, women held more than 65 percent of health-related jobs and more than 50 percent of health-related management positions. However, men still held the majority in all other science and engineering jobs.

Mijin Kim, a post-doctoral student in stem cell biology at the University of Chicago, also believes the environment is improving for women. Kim, who is originally from Korea, has been living in Chicago for about two years. Even in Korea, she said, the number of female scientists is quickly growing.  However, the country lacks support systems just for women.

“Women aren’t usually exposed to events like these,” she said.

For Kim, being able to network and talk to experienced professionals, “who have already been through” the challenges of a “set hierarchy where men are at the top,” is what makes the symposium so valuable.

Women need to figure out ways to get around these obstacles, Kim said. “The best way is by learning how other women did it.”