500 Women Scientists Use STEM in the Fight Against Trump
In the days following the 2016 election, as the nation struggled to come to grips with the grim reality of a Trump presidency, a small group of women working in STEM started a text chain to discuss what the coming administration would mean for their fields, their colleagues, and their world. What began as a four-person group chat expanded to an email conversation of hundreds within a few short days.
Spurred by this, the core group decided to publish an open letter on November 14, 2016: denouncing “the hateful rhetoric that was given a voice during the U.S. presidential election and which targeted minority groups, women, LGBTQIA, immigrants, and people with disabilities, and attempted to discredit the role of science in our society,” they pledged to “use the language of science to bridge the divides that separate societies.” The goal of 500 signatories was passed within hours; the last tally put the total somewhere in the region of 20,000.
In the almost two years that have passed since the letter’s publication, the group’s founders have channeled the momentum of that original success into the creation of a grassroots organizing group that oversees local advocacy initiatives around the globe. 500 Women Scientists, which takes its name from the original signature goal, is a registered nonprofit that runs various initiatives based around removing structural barriers to STEM careers and advocating on behalf of the sciences (and the people who make a career out of them) at a time when they are increasingly under attack.
Their “Request a Woman Scientist” initiative, for instance, provides journalists, conference organizers, and the like with an extensive database of women in STEM to whom they might reach out — a reaction to the frequency of all-male symposia and science news stories that only quote men. The network, which the group hopes to expand to include medical professionals in the future, has garnered sign-ups from around the world and across disciplines, from Algerian astronomers to Zimbabwean biotech professionals.
In addition to these databases, 500 Women Scientists offers tools for women hoping to public science op-eds or do similar public engagement work, as well as providing information for those who have experienced sexual harassment and assault in the lab (one study found that 64% of survey respondents had been sexually harassed and over 20% had been the victims of sexual assault).
“We are building a collective and unapologetically feminist voice for women in science,” said several of the organization’s leaders, “and given how quickly we have grown, our approach clearly resonates.”
On the eve of the group’s second anniversary, I had the opportunity to correspond via email with three of the women on the organization’s leadership team — Kelly Ramirez, Jane Zelikova (both co-founders), and Jewel Lipps (leader). At times, they said, the anti-knowledge rhetoric, xenophobia, and misogyny of the current administration have presented immense challenges. Nevertheless, the past two years have seen the group continue to organize events, pen articles, and publicly advocate on behalf of marginalized communities “to make sure that science is for the people, not locked away in an ivory tower.”
At the heart of this mission, group leadership says, are “pods,” local chapters of 500 Women Scientists that organize regional events and campaigns tailored to the needs of their specific community. In Moab, UT, pod representatives offered training in the regional ecology to the guides who work with the area’s many tourists. In Madrid, the pod made national news for its work with a campaign to raise awareness of the barriers facing Spanish mothers in STEM. In New York City, an event called “Science at the Bar” offered participants the opportunity to share their research to a broader audience in an informal setting.
“Everyone that runs the organization and pods is volunteering time and often financially supporting the work out of personal funds,” group leadership said. “We all have science jobs, families, friends, lives outside of 500 Women Scientists, but we are passionate to see this organization succeed, so we volunteer our time on nights and weekends to ensure it does.”
As a 501(c)3, 500 Women Scientists is legally required to remain nonpartisan, but in the lead-up to the November midterms, the group has nevertheless stayed true to its politically engaged roots: a number of pods are working on local “Get out the Vote” initiatives, including the creation of candidate questionnaires and science policy voter guides; the production of a webinar series on how women scientists can become involved in government; and the organization of voter registration drives.
In addition to real-world organizing, 500 Women Scientists uses social media and other online platforms to engage with critical issues: in late August, for instance, group affiliates began tweeting personal histories of migration under the hashtag #MyImmigrationStory as a way of combating the current administration’s virulently anti-immigrant stance and highlighting the important contributions that immigrants and their children have made to science.
For many on the leadership team of 500 Women Scientists, the immigrant experience is a personal one. Zelikova’s family left Ukraine for America in the 1990s, where her parents (a mathematician and an engineer) took jobs in corner stores and cafeterias to put bread on the table. Lipps’ mother came to the US from Mexico with her own mother and went on to earn her degree in chemical engineering. In an article for the magazine Sister, Lipps argued that protecting Dreamers and opposing the border wall is an imperative for the STEM community, calling on fellow scientists to raise awareness of the psychological impact of family separation, the projected environmental toll of a wall, and other empirically demonstrable negative effects of Trump’s immigration policy.
In March of 2017, a number of people in the 500 Women Scientists leadership jointly authored a piece for Scientific American entitled “We Are Never Just Scientists” in which they argued that the kinds of advocacy work the group engages in is not ancillary to the mission of science but fundamentally part of it: “Advocating for science requires us to advocate for women,” they wrote. “Advocating for women means advocating for gender and racial justice. It means advancing immigrant, disability, and LGBTQIA rights, religious freedom, and challenging all forms of discrimination and inequality.”
Whatever the results of the next election, women and minorities in STEM will continue to face a variety of institutional barriers — and groups like 500 Women Scientists, it seems, will be there to oppose them.