March 18, 2021
As children, girls are told that they can do anything boys can do—but as students, they’re not always given the resources to back up this promise. Females encounter gender stereotypes early on in the classroom, and these messages have real effects on the career paths they pursue.
Female-identifying students are encouraged to be creative, not logical; to be thoughtful and artistic, not mathematical problem-solvers. In school, science lessons are often taught through the lens of what are considered traditionally male interests (think model cars, rockets, and explosives), which can alienate girls and lead to lower enrollment. Studies also show that science and math teachers are overwhelmingly male, so in many cases females lack the representation they need to find those essential mentors in STEM subjects.
While studies show that female and male students perform equally well on math and science exams in K-12 grades, by the time they reach higher education, women make up only 18% of bachelor’s degrees earned in computer sciences, 20% of those earned in engineering, and 39% of those earned in math, according to the National Science Foundation. That number falls even more for females of color, who make up just 12.6% of bachelor’s degrees across all science and engineering majors. Unsurprisingly based on these findings, women represent only 28% of the STEM workforce, creating an incredibly skewed industry lacking in diverse perspectives.
There are lots of cries for gender equality in STEM, but what might that look like in action?
It might look a little something like the lab at Seventh Generation, where a talented team of scientists—many of them women—are working to create home products that support a more sustainable future.
While statistics show that women have long been underrepresented in the fields of science and technology, at Seventh Generation, they are innovating boldly in fields like formulation and packaging engineering. The brand, a certified B Corp and pioneer in the home care products space, is shifting to 100% reused and recycled packaging by 2025—and women are leading the charge.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we spoke to three of female scientists at Seventh Generation about the roots of their interest in science and math: the mentors that encouraged them, the ways they fostered learning as students, and their advice for anyone who’s faced adversity in pursuit of their passions.
What’s your earliest memory of being exposed to and excited by STEM subjects, in school or elsewhere?
Kay Gebhardt, Global Product Sustainability Manager: I have always been interested in math and science. My mother is an accountant and she involved me in her work when I was very little. I’m pretty sure my earliest toy was a calculator. I got my first microscope in second grade and my first chemistry set the year after. I also had a glorious collection of 80’s She-ra, Jem and Barbie dolls. No one ever told me I couldn’t ask for both at Christmas.
Nneka Sharon Ogbenna, Associate Research Scientist: To the best of my recollection, I’ve always been interested in science and math. It goes as far back as my Primary school years in Nigeria, where I enjoyed taking subjects like Quantitative Reasoning, Mathematics, and Elementary Science before choosing to officially dive into a strict “science subjects only” curriculum as provided by the school system during Secondary School years (High School); thereby taking the core subjects like Further Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, General Mathematics and Biology — a decision I took because I already knew science was my path.
Shanna Cullinane, Senior Research Chemist/Fragrance Manager: Like many young kids, I was fascinated by outer space and really wanted to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, I was also exposed to the Challenger explosion, and losing Christa McAuliffe was pretty devastating. I came from a family of nurses, so I was exposed to the medical field from birth. Dinner conversations revolving around human health and biological functions were the norm, so I grew up wanting to both help people and explore the unknown.
Research shows that girls are often discouraged from pursuing science and math from an early age. Growing up, was this your experience? Did you have any mentors who supported your interest in STEM?
KG: I was never discouraged from pursuing science, but my experience was that I had to hide my true self. There were many times where I downplayed my intelligence because owning it felt unsafe. Luckily, I was blessed to have several strong mentors who believed in me and were willing to put in the extra effort to nurture my love of science. The best mentors challenged me and encouraged me to shine, not hide.
NSO: Growing up, I didn’t feel discouraged from pursuing science and math because my parents laid that strong foundation and support by instilling the belief in each of us (their children) that we could be anything we worked hard to be. Also, attending an all-girls boarding secondary school for six years in Nigeria made seeing females who were very interested in acquiring education in preparation for occupying various future careers within the STEM fields very normal. Having to live and develop in such an environment absolutely diminished any presence of discouragement, if at all there was any that may have been waiting ahead in the future.
If I have to think back to who was a mentor to me, my mother definitely holds the medal because her career was not in any way related to the STEM fields, but she took it upon herself to be our home lesson teacher for not only the math and science subjects but every other subjects during those formative years in Primary School.
SC: Thankfully, this was not my experience. Both of my parents were my strongest mentors, and supported me in very different ways. My mother is an amazing, selfless nurse, who inspired me to follow in her footsteps (unsuccessfully). I did, however, become a Licensed Nurse Assistant early on in my career, but I quickly realized that I became far too emotionally invested in patients, and it was too crippling to lose them. It is absolutely incredible to me how my mother (and all nurses) can strike the balance between being a caretaker at work and home, see horrific outcomes, and still remain light-hearted and optimistic. My father is a brilliant problem-solver, who fueled my interest in inventing and innovation and taught me that a woman could do any job a man could do. I believe this combination created my inspiration for product development, with a focus on improving human and environmental health.
Do you feel you’ve faced gender-related challenges in your career?
KG: Absolutely. In college, I found other female scientists to be collaborative and supportive. In contrast, some of male colleagues would get very angry if I showed them how to unlock a problem they were struggling with. I experienced a lot of ego and anger that “a woman” understood something a man didn’t. As an example, I was guest lecturing a college physics class once and I was going quite fast with the material. A male student in the back of the room called me a b****.
SC: I think the biggest challenges I’ve faced were more around the gender wage gap. I have been incredibly fortunate to have had excellent female managers that have supported my career development, so I never felt that was being held back because I’m a female. I think I was my own biggest challenge, and not advocating strongly enough for myself.
What’s it like working on a team with so many other female scientists? How is being a part of the Seventh Generation team different from other professional experiences you’ve had?
KG: I don’t usually go to work and think, “Wow, look at those female scientists.” I go to work and think, “We are so lucky to have this caliber of STEM talent under one roof.” It does hit me when I think about my daughter. She has so many more role models than I did growing up. At Seventh Generation, women are formulation chemists and packaging engineers, they are toxicologists and product developers, and no one has ever said that “They are doing good research… for a woman.”
NSO: Being my first professional experience, it honestly feels empowering and encouraging to work in a team with many female scientists who are courageous, goal-getters, and are very knowledgeable in what they do. It drives me to want more in terms of being a master in my field, to strive and push harder for growth in my career to any extent that I dream of without the existence of limits within and outside of Seventh Generation.
SC: I absolutely love being a part of a female-dominated team of scientists. We have an amazingly supportive team of brilliant scientists, who are incredibly humble and deserve to be more in the spotlight (although would prefer not to be). Women in leadership roles are becoming more common within SVG, whereas that has not been my experience in the past. Women were more the diligent worker bees, with men in decisive leadership roles. I’m really looking forward to that changing across all global industries (and in politics!)
What career advice would you give to young women (or any women!) interested in pursuing a career in a STEM field?
KG: My advice is simple: if you love science, don’t ever let go of that. If you find yourself asking why and what and how, then follow where those paths take you. Find a mentor who will help you get back up when you stumble, and don’t ever let anyone steal your joy when you unlock the biggest scientific challenges of our time.
NSO: My advice to any woman who is interested in pursuing a career in the STEM field is that as long as you have passion and dedication, use them as your fuel for pursuing your career dreams because there are many seats for you at the table. Believe that you can achieve anything you set your mind to do. Even if/when it gets tough, remind yourself of your purpose for choosing this field, re-ignite that fire, and know that there are great women out here cheering for you!
SC: Don’t listen to anyone that’s trying to deter you away from your passions. STEM fields may be male dominated, but not because they’re men’s jobs. Diversity and inclusion of all genders and ethnicities will help advance science exponentially. Be strong, advocate for change, and stay true to yourself.
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