By Emily Press
“An old white male is the classic image of a professor, with leather elbow patches and a tweed jacket, and that’s not me.”
Dr. Melissa Pespeni is a recent addition to the UVM Department of Biology. Her research focuses on the dynamic relationships between organisms and the environment via molecular, ecological and evolutionary mechanisms. She is one of the few impressive female academics to have overmastered the “leaky pipeline.”
After an initial drop-off at the post-doctorate level, Pespeni explained, “the ratio of women to men drops off dramatically again at the faculty level, and sometimes academic culture becomes caustic for women. Even if they do make it, even if they do get tenure, sometimes they will still leave.” She watched the numbers fall on her own path from graduate studies to post-doctorate studies to academia.
Pespeni conducted research at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station as a PhD candidate, working to bridge micro and macro global impact studies (which suited her interest in an integrated understanding of the natural world). The ratio of female to male graduate students in her program was fairly even, but the number of female doctorate advisors was discouragingly low. Only 2 out of 11 of the station faculty, and only 1 out of 4 of her committee advisors, were women. Pespeni was the first in the station’s history to have a baby as a graduate student.
At the time, Stanford did not have maternity leave supports in place for graduate students. These days, the number of graduate schools that do is growing, albeit inconsistently (Stanford adopted a policy for female graduate students in 2006).
It was not easy, Pespeni recalled, supporting a child on graduate student budgets and nursing a newborn while also being engaged in highly stimulating research. Still, she never felt that she had to make a choice between being a mother and being a career woman.
When we talk about women in stem, the dialogue is often less than uplifting. About 50% of undergraduate STEM degrees are held by women, but it’s after college, often after graduate school, that we begin to see the real effects of gender bias. (Sassler 2016). Only 29% of the STEM workforce is made up of women (National Girls Collaborative Project). Gender segregation within certain doctoral programs is striking: take engineering (22.8% women), math (28.9%) or computer science (20.8%). And though women represent a little over half of all Biological bachelor’s degrees, the percentage drops steadily from BA to MA to PhD (National Science Foundation).
Pespeni was a Critical Gender Studies double major as an undergraduate. That training, coupled now with personal experience, lends a layered perspective on the gender disparity. “Part of the issue is a lack of support for dual career and/or having a family,” she says. “It’s part of our social norms – the idea of the woman being the caretaker for children. Luckily, my PhD and postdoctoral advisors were supportive of me starting and having a family during that critical period of life. And UVM has been smart and ahead of the curve to be supportive of dual careers. I feel fortunate to be a part of such a family-friendly department and community.”
As of 2016, 27% of all mothers do not work outside of the home, as opposed to only 7% of all fathers (Pew Research Center). For women, far more than for men, social pressures make having a family and having a career seem mutually exclusive. “Men will often pursue their career while the women become the homemaker and take care of the kids,” Pespeni says.
Pespeni described herself as “lucky” multiple times throughout our interview: she didn’t feel like being a woman held her back in her studies. Of course, it took a lot more than just luck to achieve at the level Pespeni has thus far, but she’s right: from the start, she was fortunate enough to have supportive parents; in academia she was lucky to have male advisors who supported her decision to start a family.
It wasn’t until she became one of the few - a female PhD, teaching and mentoring as well as conducting research - that Pespeni felt the bias herself. “Being a faculty member has been interesting. Being so aware of gender stereotypes, particularly in the classroom, even the unconscious bias that exists just in seeing a female as your professor,” she says.
Pespeni referenced a popular study conducted on gender bias in the classroom in which teacher identities were masked in an online classroom interface, and students were asked to rank teachers. Teachers with male names were ranked significantly higher than those with female names despite presenting the same course materials (MacNell 2015).
“Whether or not the students are aware of it, there is an unconscious bias of ‘this person is not an expert,” she says. This presents a frustrating shift, moving from total confidence in the self, to an unjustified lack of confidence from your student audience.
Overarchingly, Pespeni’s story is one of hope and success. As a student in her genetics class, I feel it and hear it whispered all around me: “She is such a badass!” Her confidence and expertise inspires and empowers the young women in her lecture hall. In that sea of young female scientists, excitement drowns out the voices of prejudice. She may not have everyone on her side, but Pespeni is certainly making a difference to this group of women.
Her advice for budding female scientists, researchers and teachers? “Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t. I am so fortunate that I felt like my gender had nothing to do with my scientific, mathematical or computational abilities. But still be a strong advocate for women and for other underrepresented groups, because having that kind of diversity in the environment really makes it more rich.”
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