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From left, Susan Shaw, Sarina Saturn and Jennifer Almquist pose for a photo on the Oregon State University campus. The three are part of a project at OSU working to improve the number of women in scientific fields at OSU and beyond. Saturn is scheduled to speak on the topic Monday night at Science Pub Corvallis. 

Andy Cripe, Gazette-Times

Try this experiment: Draw a picture of a scientist. Go ahead. We’ll wait.

Done? Good.

Unless you were tipped off by the headline on this story and suspected some sort of trap, chances are good that you drew a picture of a man.

You’re not alone.

“If you go into a room of people and you say, ‘Draw a scientist,’ (most people are) going to draw a man,” said Susan Shaw, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University. “They’re already up against the notion that to be a scientist is to be a man.”

The numbers would tend to support your picture: According to statistics from the federal government, women hold only 24 percent of the jobs in the STEM fields. (STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.)

OSU isn’t an exception: Women make up just 23 percent of the faculty in those fields, including the social and behavioral sciences.

Now, though, a group of OSU faculty and staff members – armed with a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation – are working to change those numbers.

During the January edition of Science Pub Corvallis, some of the people involved in the effort will discuss the issue and then lay out some of their plans to push for change at OSU. The free presentation begins at 6 p.m. at the Old World Deli, 341 S.W. Second St. in downtown Corvallis.

The presenters, including Sarina Saturn, an assistant professor in the OSU School of Psychological Sciences, and Dwaine Plaza, a sociology professor, also promise interactive activities to help illustrate some of the stereotypes and gender roles that “we just kind of absorb in the culture,” Saturn said.

Those stereotypes and gender roles help set the stage for a broader discussion of the overall issue – and there’s a lot of ground to cover there.

Plaza offered an analogy: Think of a pipeline that runs from primary school all the way to the university. “And all along that pipeline, there are these pieces that pull young women and young men, people of color, out of that pipeline, because it’s so much easier to do something different. … You can imagine a young person growing up, feeling all that pressure all the time. This is the hard road. This is the road where there are not people who look like me, there are not people who have my experience.”

The ADVANCE grant, which was awarded to OSU last August, is part of a series of grants funded by the National Science Foundation to help plug the leaks in the pipeline. OSU is the first Oregon institution to win one of the grants.

But with so many leaks, where do you start trying to make a difference?

The OSU ADVANCE team’s strategy: Start at the top.

The centerpiece of OSU’s ADVANCE project will be a series of two-week seminars to begin this summer and which will continue through the lifespan of the grant.

The idea is to invite top OSU officials to the seminars – deans and administrators in the schools involved in the STEM fields, Saturn said, “to help them understand these systems of oppression and the issues that their women faculty face in order to allow them to break down those obstacles and also to increase understanding.”

Added Shaw, the principal investigator for the OSU project: “We’re going to work on those interpersonal relationships. We’re also going to work on institutional structures. Where are those places where things are embedded – that we may not even pay attention to – in the promotion and tenure processes, in the hiring processes, in the allocation of resources?”

While the seminars are the centerpieces of the OSU ADVANCE project, other pieces are planned, including a public lecture series featuring renowned women scientists talking about their professional accomplishments and the hurdles they’ve faced. The first lecture, scheduled for April, will feature Rita Colwell, a former director of the National Science Foundation.

OSU’s ADVANCE team has set its goals high, not just for the university, but for science in general.

”I want faculty to be happy here,” Shaw said. “I want women and men faculty to be happy. I want them to be productive. I want them to feel valued (and) that those differences of gender, race, sexual identity, social class, are valued and seen as things that contribute to the well-being and status of these programs.”

The stakes are high for science as well, she said.

If women aren’t working in laboratories, teaching classes, serving as mentors, Shaw said, “there are questions that don’t get asked. … Women have different social experiences that might lead them to ask different questions. And the same is true when they’re not people of color, when they’re not LGBT, across all those differences. And I think it means that science loses out, and when science loses out, I think we all lose out, because we don’t know those things.”

Mike McInally is editor of the Albany Democrat-Herald and the Corvallis Gazette-Times. Email him at mike.mcinally@lee.net.

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