Often relegated to the bookish, awkward lab assistant, female scientists have never gotten the respect they deserve in the public eye. Everything from literature to movies has fed on this trope, reducing them to exposition devices spewing jargon, or sidekicks to more competent male characters.
In reality, women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are not two-dimensional and definitely do much more than advance someone else’s plot. To discuss and celebrate the unique and nuanced stories of these women, She Talks Asia and L’Oreal Philippines held #STEMSisterhood, a tribe meet-up for women in STEM, last February 11, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
No single path or story
At first glance, Dr. Maricor Soriano, Dr. Geraldine Zamora, and Alex Suarez seem like they’ve always been sure of their place in the sciences since childhood. However, listening to their histories reveal that their path was anything but certain.
Dr. Soriano, a physicist at the National Institute of Physics at the University of the Philippines and an awardee of The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service, had always been interested in STEM. But falling into her chosen field was a bit of an accident. “Choice one was biology, choice two was psychology,” she said, recalling her college application. “But I didn’t know they were quota courses. I passed the exam, but I didn’t pass the quota. [I was told to] choose a subject that still had slots. So I looked at the long list and said, ‘Hey, physics! I enjoyed physics in high school. I’ll take physics!’”
For Dr. Zamora, a rheumatologist and founder of the Lupus Bridging Fund, STEM wasn’t even among their options. Dr. Zamora wanted to be a dancer and a model. Similarly, Suarez, Country Lead of Bumble Philippines, had a business degree and worked in finance for six years. The roads to their current careers may have been unusual and unromantic, but Suarez thinks it has given them a useful edge.
“You see every opportunity with fresh eyes. Usually when you’re down one path, you tend to stay on it, especially if it’s working for you in some shape or form. But every time I changed roles, it was a new problem to solve, and you think from the ground up every time.”
No need to be Superwoman
Other people may take this “uncertainty” of their narratives as a sign of weakness, an indicator that there was never a clear resolve or decision. But by utilizing it a strength instead, they want to tell women who are in or want to pursue STEM that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, especially since women are especially pressured to be perfect. Falling into a path doesn’t make you less deserving of excelling in it.
Dr. Zamora shared how she had to choose the less demanding field of rheumatology over cardiology when she became a mother. To her, it wasn’t a sad compromise she was forced to make, but a willful choice that allowed her to take control of her time and priorities.
“Some of us might think that we need to do everything, that we need to be Superwoman… but I needed to give something up,” she said. “I had to choose which were the most important aspects of my life… So I think it’s really possible to have the best of the worlds that you choose to prioritize.”
According to Carmel Valencia, corporate communications ehad of L’Oreal Philippines, this is a decision all women, especially those in the sciences, need to make. And so it’s important to create spaces for sharing stories women in STEM can relate to and pattern their lives against.
“We don’t have a lack of stories to tell,” Valencia said. “It’s just a matter of getting them out there and making sure that the young girls can visually see what a scientist and the range of what scientists [can be]. A scientist is not just a person in the lab. Visualization could be so powerful for young people.”