Science Policy

A Loud Woman is a Strong Woman in Science Policy

03.30.23 | 4 min read | Text by Nazish Jeffery

Who do we celebrate when celebrating women’s history? 

Women’s history month invokes a lot of different, oftentimes conflicting feelings. In one sense, there is pride and joy to hear about all the accomplishments that women have achieved, but at the same time it can feel othering when you see mostly white women being talked about. The disparity only grows more when you enter the world of STEM. 

As a first-generation American and a woman of color navigating STEM proved exceptionally difficult. I had no generational knowledge of how college worked and how to make college work for you, I had no generational knowledge of what I could do in order to better succeed after college as well. Looking back, I know there were plenty of opportunities that I missed out on, purely because I had no way of accessing them. My best support system was the internet and searching how to do things that other people had the advantage of asking people they knew for support.

I was lucky during college: I found a role model in Dr. Noveera Ahmed, who was also a first-generation woman of color that had achieved her Ph.D. and was now a research professor. In her I saw possibility, and a path for what I could achieve as a Pakistani-American woman. Graduate school, however, offered another reminder of the obstacles I faced. Sure, there were female faculty (not enough), but the number of female faculty of color was abysmally low. Why were so few women able to reach the next rungs in the ladders of academia? 

I’m not the only one feeling this way: women of color are underrepresented across all STEM fields. There’s been an increase of women in life sciences since I received my Ph.D., but the increase has been far more modest in fields like math, physical sciences, and engineering – and the number of women in computer science has even started heading back down. While progress is happening, we need to stop the backsliding before it spreads. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened existing inequities and threatened new ones, as many women were forced to put STEM careers on hold for myriad reasons. 

For many women of color, finding STEM jobs they are even eligible for is a formidable challenge in America. And that challenge only increases when so many pre-career opportunities are restricted to US citizens. Networking is key to finding that next path in your career, but those opportunities just are not as abundant, either due to financial constraints, lack of access and transportation, or personal constraints put on us by society. More often than not, talented people – people who could be in labs making vaccines for the next pandemic, or curing enigmatic diseases – are excluded from opportunities they qualify for (and frankly deserve) because they are not U.S. citizens, or they can’t find time to network when working to keep a roof above their head or pay for tuition. What good is a STEM education, and an American STEM education, if we can’t use it? 

These systemic hurdles made me angry, frustrated, and resentful towards the elitism of STEM institutions and what ultimately led me to Science Policy. Why were there rules in place that were not equitable, why were there no safeguards put in place to protect women, people of color, people with disabilities? Why were so many accomplished professors terrible mentors who didn’t help you explore different career paths? Ultimately, I felt if I did not speak up on behalf of first generation people, for women, for people of color, then our voice would continue to be stymied and buried. 

If you are a first-generation American in science, a woman of color, or otherwise feel like STEM isn’t for you, you don’t have to let institutions compel you to give up. At FAS, my passion and a desire to lay the groundwork to support the U.S. bioeconomy, for education reform, and for immigration reform is a critical part of my work. My experience as a woman in STEM is valued, and I do not shy away from letting personal experiences at the bench or in the lecture hall color my perspectives. I didn’t have to shrink myself to get in the club, but I did have to beat the door down to be heard. And it was worth it. After all, a loud woman is a strong woman.  

But the fight does not stop with me. I can start breaking these obstacles and barriers down for the next generation of women in Science Policy, but change will not be realized until first-generation Americans, people of color, women, people of disability come together and demand change, demand equality, and demand inclusivity.