“I’m not plain vanilla!,” Suse Broyde proclaims over the constant humming of the heater in her 20’ by 6’ office. The moss colored carpet is stained, hiding its original gray color. Shelves of books line the walls, some filled with piles of papers pouring out of overstretched manila folders. The few legible titles peeping out of the overflowing shelves read “Biochemistry,” “Repair-Resistant DNA Lesions,” and a book titled “Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.”
Suse, or rather, Dr. Broyde is a professor of biology at NYU. She earned her Ph. D. in Physical Chemistry in 1963: the same year Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was published. But when women stopped working for a day in August 1970 for the Women’s Strike for Equality, Broyde was at the library. And at a time when professors of chemistry at Yale couldn’t recall any women scientists of the past, not even Marie Curie, a two-time Nobel Prize winner, Broyde was at the library: every Friday, in fact, to look at the scientific journals, an activity she describes, as “the best fun.”
“I just wanted to be a scientist,” she explained, “I put all of my energy into raising my family and being a scientist and not at all active.” In a soft voice, and using hand gestures as she speaks slowly, Broyde’s fire for science is still burning after all of these years.
“Peculiar…I have to say,” she says on the phenomenon of women being deterred from scientific fields because of some preexisting expectations of women at the time to be housewives. In contrast, she describes herself as “very strong and robust. This is followed with a, “even though, you know…” gesturing at her small physique, maybe 5’1.
Her black rimmed glasses cover much of her face, but give attention to her small and gentle eyes that show little sign of any makeup. Her cheeks are lined with years of experience and knowledge, a true sign of all her hours dedicated to science and her family. She is just under 80 years old, and has a firm handshake.
In a “male-dominated field,” as we have coined any scientific discipline, we expect stories of prejudice and unfairness from a woman. Especially in the ‘60s, moments before the second-wave feminists revolutionized the way women were and are treated in the workplace. But in the shadow of all of these protests and marches, Broyde’s passion for science persisted.
“I was curious and I wanted to understand how things worked,” she describes, “and I was sort of driven to it and I just couldn’t be stopped. I just persistently worked away at it.”
Broyde never noticed if there were more men in her classes as a student, or if she didn’t get that fellowship because she was a woman. Prejudice against women in the scientific community on a large scale is a topic that has only recently been shed light onto.
“I know that it’s a big hot topic, and I know that it’s there. I’m sure that it has always existed, and people are working very hard to avoid it now, but I have to tell you that I didn’t pay much attention to it. Science was just something I was very passionate about. I paid no mind to [the prejudice.]”
Similarly, Melissa Tan, a third-year Ph. D candidate notices that there has never been a moment when she feels like she was treated differently because she is a woman in science. A first-generation immigrant, her parents both from Malaysia, Melissa studies the optical properties of crystals at NYU Professor Bart Kahr’s lab.
She started in the humanities during her undergraduate career, but soon switched to chemistry. “I realized there wasn’t enough of a balance in the coursework, for me,” she admits. She tries to find the right words, slightly tilting her head, looking up. “I wasn’t…challenging my mind…fully.” She strings together her words to make certain she articulates her honest answers.
Melissa was introduced to the world of chemistry through her first professor who suggested art preservation: the field of protecting art by understanding its components and using chemicals to disrupt any degradation of material.
I ask if there is any difference in atmosphere between her art history classes and her chemistry. After a small pause, she laughs almost apologetically answers, “Honestly…no. It might be surprising. One might think that in a setting where I’m just mostly around female colleagues that I would be more comfortable in participating, but I think in both situations I’ve always been somewhat reserved. That’s probably more out of a fear of getting things wrong,” she laughs again but this time a little embarrassed.
To both Melissa and Broyde, the world of science is an egalitarian place: there is no Harvey Weinstein lurking around.
But the numbers show a different story. According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 survey, women make up 48% of the workforce in the US, but only 24% of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workers. In 2014, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women physicians and surgeons made only $0.62 to every $1 earned by their male counterparts. Whatever the reason, women aren’t as well represented or paid in STEM fields. But experiences of women like Broyde and Melissa exemplify hope for future women scientists.
Whether it was by luck, or by being surrounded by a generally liberal environment, Melissa explains her experience in her lab group as being fair and unbiased.
“Given the current environment and the aftermath of the Me Too movement, Bart was very open in telling all of us that if you’re ever uncomfortable, if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable or acts untoward to you, let me know and I will take care of it. And I appreciated that.”
She describes further that there has not been a significant change at her lab following the recent social movements on women’s rights and equality, “but in a way, I think that’s a good thing.” Has there been a noticeable change in the greater scientific community as a result of movements like Me Too and the Women’s March?
“For me, it’s too soon to say,” she says, “I think there was also a recent publication that shows that most articles are still published by men rather than women.”
She is right. A study published in 2016 found that men are “15% more likely to author published journal articles than their female counterparts per 100 hours of research time.1”
But Melissa is hopeful. “Although these movements have not eradicated gender biases completely,” she explains, “they are an important step forward. For once, the narrative is not ‘female cat-fight’ but the power of collective action! Moreover, these movements are increasing the visibility of successful women, which is critical to inspiring young girls.”
She continues, “it’s very encouraging to see and to be a part of this awakening that I think remains to be seen. Collectively, will we stay the course; will we keep putting pressure on these male dominated environments so that women are treated equitably?”
After a pause, Melissa acknowledges that she is part of “this isolated bubble…there’s no intrinsic reason why chemistry or the sciences should be any different from the business of Hollywood.”
- This study was done on 336 first-year PhD students in biological sciences from 53 research institutions.