From research into HIV cures to analyzing plants for medicinal purposes, women at Emory University have made significant contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). However, female professors continue to report barriers in advancing in the STEM field. 

Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Heemstra has experienced this acutely, particularly in regards to motherhood.

Noting the historic discrimination women in STEM face from their male colleagues, Heemstra said that mothers often receive a lack of adequate support from their workplace, in addition to stereotyping and implicit biases

I had a postdoc offer retracted because I was a woman and it was considered too risky to hire me because I might become pregnant,” Heemstra said. “I was actually terminated from another job because I became pregnant. These were the big events, but perhaps the bigger challenge has been the everyday things that happen that consistently erode one’s dignity.”

While Heemstra’s employers ended up keeping her position, and she completed her postdoc at Harvard University (Mass.) in 2010, many women in STEM experience the struggle of balancing their duties as scholars and mothers. 

Emily Burchfield, an assistant professor in environmental science, said that after she had her child, she noticed different expectations placed on men and women as both employees and parents. She added that female professors are often penalized for having babies by delaying their tenure by an additional year, which can often delay promotions as well.

“Don’t delay tenure, shift the expectations for those whose bodies create life for nine months, then get a tiny baby through the first year of life,” Burchfield said.

Ha-tien Nguyen/Staff

Although 59% of Emory students and 48% of the U.S. workforce are women, they only make up 27% of the STEM workforce nationwide.  Many women in STEM have cited the lack of female mentors in the field as a key factor in their decision to leave STEM, especially in physical sciences, engineering and computing, which host the lowest percentage of women.

Assistant Computer Science Professor Joyce Ho experienced the weight of gender discrimination during her education in computer science. Ho said there was a lack of female professors during her time as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she received her B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 2003. Instead, she relied on female classmates for support.

“While I haven’t had many official female mentors, my support network served as my unofficial mentors,” Ho said. “They gave me a sense of belonging and confidence that for me it didn’t matter so much whether or not there was diversity above me. I was comfortable enough to pursue what I loved.”

About two decades later, Ilakkia Anabayan (22C), a neuroscience and behavioral biology (NBB) major, said the female faculty at Emory played a major role in her decision to conduct research and apply to be a Churchill Scholar. With the award, Anabayan will pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Cambridge. Anabayan also credits her female professors with inspiring her to be a mentor to other female students in the chemistry department. 

“Professor McGill is someone I really look up to,” Anabayan said. “As someone who is really interested in education and mentorship, her efforts to transform the chemistry curriculum at Emory have been inspirational. I also really look up to Dr. Roesch in the NBB department. She has been a strong source of support as I have navigated the challenges of research and coursework at Emory.”

Despite strides to increase women’s presence in STEM, such as the creation of Women in Science at Emory, a group comprised of STEM faculty, Ho said the scientific community has still not achieved gender equality. Women like Ho speak out to highlight long-ignored issues with the hopes of coming one step closer toward bridging gender discrepancies in STEM fields. 

One of the first steps is building female-focused support networks in academia, Anabayan said. She believes it is important to build the foundation of academic and social support for the next generation of aspiring scientists, as many women in STEM have lacked female mentors in their fields of study.

“My interest in STEM, particularly research, really blossomed when I was surrounded by great mentors,” Anabayan said. “Part of this is empowering young women to understand the value that they bring to their labs, classrooms, or clinics. By being confident in the worth of your time and efforts, you can more effectively identify mentors who appreciate what you bring to the table.”