Creating WIS(e) change in the sciences

WIS leaders

Women in Science Portland celebrates seven years of empowerment and growth

March 29, 2018

Story and photo by Nadir Balba

On a dreary night last fall, relentless rain pounded the windows of Portland's Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, but it didn't dampen the spirits of a boisterous group of science enthusiasts inside.

The Women in Science Portland (WIS) annual mixer brought hundreds of students, researchers and other professionals together for a night of networking and fun inside the museum's spacious lobby. The combination of free food and drinks stimulated a friendly environment where even the most socially introverted felt comfortable mingling with colleagues.

But the laughter and camaraderie belied the group's serious mission. The world of scientific research is notorious for its gender discrimination, from salary differences to promotion bias to sexual harassment in the lab, as evidenced by numerous studies, surveys and personal experiences.

According to the Pew Research Center, over half of women in STEM jobs experience discrimination at work, which is higher than what women experience in non-STEM fields. One study tested this first-hand by applying to several laboratory manager positions at different U.S. research universities under the names John and Jenifer. Despite having the identical applications, faculty at these universities rated John as more competent, were more likely to hire him and were even willing to pay him more than Jenifer.

In Portland, a group of OHSU women recognized that, to effect lasting change for individuals, it would take a chorus of voices joining together. And so WIS was born.

Early beginnings

It all started in 2011 when a group of OHSU graduate students and postdocs heard a talk from Judith Eisen, Ph.D., professor of biology, who was visiting from University of Oregon.

University of Oregon, Dr. Eisen explained, had launched an organization called Women in Graduate Science back in 2004, whose mission focuses on the professional development of women in all disciplines of sciences. That lit a spark.

The OHSU students and postdocs felt that Portland needed a similar society. "Women face unique biases and obstacles in academic research, and I wanted to help create a forum to openly discuss these obstacles and learn from other women who were more advanced in their careers," said Kateri Spinelli, Ph.D. '12, a scientific publications writer at Providence Health and Services and WIS co-founder.

"I honestly was shocked that such a group didn't already exist in the city," explained Molly Harding Marra, Ph.D. '14, WIS co-founder and current biology instructor at St. Mary's Academy.

The group began with simple, low-key happy hours where female colleagues from OHSU would get together and offer support to one another while coping in male-dominated work environments. Their overall goal was to build a community of supportive networks for the development, retention and promotion of women in sciences. 

"Starting something in Portland was empowering for us," said Dr. Harding Marra.

Initial success

One of their first initiatives was lobbying for parental leave for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, while also advocating for better safety policies for pregnant women at OHSU. 

"Very few graduate programs offered parental leave," said WIS Vice President Jolanda Muenzel, Ph.D. '13, a medical science liaison and former OHSU postdoctoral fellow. "This was a particularly sore point of mine because when I had a child, I was lucky to have a boss who supported me throughout my parental leave, but I know many females who were not supported at all."

At the time, OHSU graduate students were not entitled to sick leave and could not accumulate vacation time since that was negotiated between individuals and their mentors on a case-by-case basis. Some students felt their only option after having a child was to take a leave of absence from their studies, but, in this scenario, they would lose their health insurance.

After researching more progressive policies at other universities, the group approached the school's Associate Dean for Graduation Studies, Allison Fryer, Ph.D., and advocated for change. With approval from the dean at the time, the late Dean Emeritus Mark Richardson, the policy proposal was presented to the school's Graduate Council – a body of graduate faculty who advise the school on graduate education matters – which fully endorsed the idea.

OHSU now provides eight weeks of parental leave with full stipend support for graduate students and postdocs while also offering personalized risk assessments of lab space for expectant mothers.

"Students are no longer afraid to tell their faculty mentors they are expecting a baby," said Dr. Fryer. "They are no longer stressed about how they are going to arrange parental leave and absence, and there is equal treatment for all Ph.D. students in the School of Medicine."

Abby Dotson, Ph.D. '12, WIS diversity coordinator who works as an alliance manager at OHSU, agreed. "The biggest impact is that there is a standard system for everyone instead of leave being decided on a case-by-case basis."

These new policies not only help students, but also have a positive benefit for OHSU. "It is hugely important for recruitment because many graduate students are at a point in their lives when they are often starting a family," explained Dr. Fryer. "They need to know we are serious about supporting students, and this is one of the most tangible things the school has done towards that end."

Growth and development

After this early success, WIS soon realized there was a greater need to support and promote healthy work environments for women in scientific careers at all levels. The group began to expand outside of OHSU, and STEM workers from around Portland joined in.

WIS is now open to anyone supporting of women in science regardless of gender, race, age or area of work. This inclusivity has led to the exponential growth with hundreds of members interacting through Facebook, Twitter and a monthly newsletter.

Today, the group organizes several workshops throughout the year to better support and help prepare women in STEM-related fields. For example, WIS offers "Lunch & Learn" sessions, which provide an informal platform to discuss different career development topics and advice from a wide range of experts. There are also peer-mentoring groups, resume-building workshops, outreach events and negotiation boot camps.

Trish Pruis, Ph.D. '10, WIS fundraising chair of the board and collaboration manager at the Oregon Clinical & Translation Research Institute, hopes to help graduate students, postdocs and other science professionals develop their careers through these types of programs. After earning her doctorate from OHSU, she described her transition out of academia as "extremely bumpy" partly due to the lack of career development and networking opportunities available at the time.  

"I want to prevent others from having to go through the same thing I did," Dr. Pruis said, adding that she believes the WIS programs will help other women find their ideal path early in their careers.

Continuing the fight

The recent #MeToo and TIME'S UP movements have shined a national spotlight on sexual harassment and gender inequity across a variety of workplace sectors, underscoring that this type of supportive network in the sciences is more critical than ever before.

Biochemist and Nobel laureate Tim Hunt recently came under fire when it was reported that he once said he was in favor of all-male research labs, partly because men couldn't help but fall in love with women and that "when you criticize them, they cry." Dr. Hunt eventually apologized for his remarks, but his comments reveal the dark underbelly of some STEM work environments that for generations have been dominated by men.

Although rates of women earning STEM degrees have consistently grown over the past 20 years, women are often underrepresented in leadership positions. "One of the biggest challenges women face in the STEM fields is not having visible role models in senior and leadership positions," said Allison Schaser, Ph.D. '15, a postdoctoral fellow at OHSU and president of WIS.

This is largely due to the promotions bias in many scientific fields, where women are often overlooked despite being equally qualified as their male counterparts. One study found that over 40 percent of science-related Ph.D.'s in the U.S. went to women in 2010, yet in 2015 only 23 percent of full professors were female. According to Dr. Schaser, that's why one of the main goals at WIS is to "support women at this early-career stage so that they have the resources and skills they need to negotiate and compete for leadership positions." 

A promising future

WIS has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Last September, the group took a big step forward when it officially became a nonprofit organization.

"[Nonprofit status] allows us to fund raise more effectively and reach out beyond our initial starting point as an OHSU student group to more easily serve and impact the larger, more diverse Portland science community," explained Dr. Schaser.

As WIS continues to grow and diversify its programs, its annual mixer serves as an anchoring event, nurturing a community and connecting potential employers to a local pool of talent. 

OHSU behavioral neuroscience Ph.D. student Erika Cuellar attended last fall's mixer. "It was inspiring to see the range of fields women are working in," she said. "We have such a supportive community."

If you would like to learn more about WIS or make a donation, visit the WIS website or email the group

Pictured above: founding members and board members, from left to right, Laura Stadum, J.D., Astrid Kurniawan, M.Sc., Allison Schaser, Ph.D., Ashley Fritz, Ph.D., Kateri Spinelli, Ph.D. '12, Ruth Barrett, Ph.D., and Lillian Klug, Ph.D. '18.