Why we need more women researchers?

I had the opportunity to attend 251st American Chemical Society Conference (ACS) in San Diego to give a talk. In my session and in all the sessions I attended, I saw about 10-20% representation of women. I also noticed that 5x more questions are asked when a female researcher presents vs. most of the male researchers. This behavior made me think,

Why are more questions raised when a female researcher presents her work?

On one hand, let me be clear that I am thankful for all the questions. Questions mean that people are interested in my research and are curious to know more. Discussion about scientific work is good, because it provides valuable feedback about how to make my ‘great work’, the ‘best.’

One the other hand, it also made me question,

Why did the silent Joe in the audience have the intense urge to question only my work?

The answer is … women researchers are still an anomaly. There are only one or two women presenters in a session where there are 8 other male presenters. The presence of women researchers piques interest and raises questions about her validity to be on that stage.

In this regard, I remember my cousin telling me that women in STEM* workforce are akin to nuts in an ice-cream. When you eat an ice-cream, there will be a few scattered nuts. Don’t you feel happy when your teeth bite into the nut once in a while? Women researchers are essential, because we bring a different perspective to the problem.

Any work by a woman will be more critically evaluated, when compared to her male counterparts. It is crucial to present your work with confidence and to justify and validate your research. When you present on the dais, you represent not only yourself but also all the other women researchers in your community.  There is an onus on each of us to put forth the best because indeed we do the best research.

All human beings have fear of public speaking. If you recognize public speaking as a development need, take courses which enhance your public speaking/ presentation skills.

I also observed another behavior. Women tend to preface a question with, ‘Sorry … I have a question.’ Instead, say ‘Excuse me … I have a question.’ Demand answers with authority.

I also make it a point to introduce myself to other female researchers, learn about their work and take their contact details. Given that women are like nuts in an ice cream we have to keep track of other nuts. It is our responsibility to know the great work of other female researchers, connect, encourage and support them. 

I dream of a future where there is at least 50% representation of women across all fields. Women in every field should be like the cheese and toppings on the pizza, the more … the better.

*STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Dr. Soumya Gudiyella is a Post-doctoral Associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She investigates fuel treatment strategies to nip pollutant emissions in the bud. Prior to joining MIT, she worked at GE's research lab in Bangalore, India and contributed towards building clean and efficient combustion engines. Opinions are authors own and not affiliated with any public or private institution. Dr. Gudiyella is passionate about diversity and inclusion in academia and beyond. 

Linkedin | Personal blog