Calling All Girls

The job market for people with scientific training is large these days. And it's a big opportunity for women, because the need for smart people is erasing the old barriers that once kept women out of many fields—even in supposedly objective science.

Scientists have historically been as sexist as the societies they lived in. In America only two generations ago, some college geology departments would not let women go to field camp.

In earlier centuries it took outright heroism, plus support from well-meaning men, for women to join the great conversation of science. The life of Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville (1780–1872), once called "the most extraordinary woman in Europe," is instructive.

That kind of character is as rare today as it was then. Fortunately, things are not so hard for women any more.

Women Gain Ground

The effects of that long discriminatory history still linger—women scientists (in the English-speaking world) lag behind men in salaries, though less so than in other occupations. These differences grow smaller every year. In academic science, women are common in prestigious roles such as meeting organizers, journal editors, and society officers. Organizations like the American Geophysical Union have had nondiscrimination policies in place for many years. I have personally seen steady growth in the presence of women at scientific meetings during the last 25 years.

Clearly, the people in pure science are doing the right thing.

But the majority of geoscience jobs are in practical science and engineering, not in academic research or policy agencies—they're in mining and construction and municipal planning, in forensics and petroleum and land reclamation, and many more roles.

Progress is slower there, but the bottom-line pressures of business, plus affirmative action in some cases, are helping most women to get a fair deal.

Bringing Up Women Scientists

Once women get into Earth science, they do good science. But barriers earlier in life are still keeping them out. Too many girls still lose their childhood interest in science, and they miss the essential high-school courses like math, geology, physics, and chemistry. Girls don't see the role models or gain the mentors that boys do. Too many boys lord it over girls, even their own sisters, out of self-important ignorance.

Lots of organizations are working to change that situation, but at least two are sisters doin' it for themselves.

The Association of Women Geoscientists offers job information, public information, education, and inspiration for women and girls.

Women in Mining offers resources for teachers. Their latest project is learning activities tied to the National Science Education Standards, so teachers can use "Toothpaste with a Twist" and dozens of others in the right places.

The Personal Touch

The National Academy of Sciences has commissioned a set of books, Women's Adventures in Science, about ten women scientists.

Two of them, Inez Fung and Adriana Ocampo, are geologists, and a third, Heidi Hammel, is a planetologist. The accompanying Web site has kid-friendly supporting material worth anyone's attention that focuses on the scientists' life stories as much as on their work.

Some of the happiest reading I know of is the remarks delivered when scientists are awarded medals. These short addresses—by women or men—are full of good advice. The American Geophysical Union has many of these online. There is a big backlog of men being honored, and many deserving women are waiting their inevitable turn. But worth singling out are the words of three happy women, Peggy Shea, winner of the Smith Medal in geophysics, and Tuija Pulkkinen, who won the Macelwane Medal for young scientists (and as of 2011 had become the president of the EGU.

Inez Fung is there too, winning the Revelle Medal.

The Geological Society of America is in a similar situation with its medalists, but it also singles out women geologists for an award. The 2005 recipient, Michelle Walvoord, told the audience at the annual GSA meeting, "Today is an exciting time to be a woman scientist—and a scientist, in general. Many of the most important questions in the Earth sciences require even bigger picture thinking than ever before since issues like climate change, water resources, and ecosystem sustainability, require multidisciplinary approaches and good communication across various fields."