A History of Cultivating Opportunities for Women in Science at UW-Madison

One of the fun things about preparing for prelims is taking the time to step back and reflect on all I’ve learned over the past four and a half years. One particularly gratifying service learning project that I’ve had the chance to work on while in graduate school was producing a 50-year anniversary video for UW-Madison’s Expanding Your Horizons program that seeks to engage middle school girls in science and technology fields. Its objectives are to:

Increase interest in science through hands-on experience;
Awareness of math and science-related careers; and
Bring young women with “limited opportunities for success” in positive experiences in math, science and technology.

Here’s some of what I wrote reflecting on the project during our production:

The historical research for the EYH video has been eye opening. Before visiting the UW Archives and looking up statistics on the numbers of women in science I had no idea that the percentages of women earning doctoral degrees was actually declining during the 1950s. For example, the average number of women graduate students in the five-year period between 1921-26 was 29.5 percent, but by the time period between 1956-61 that figure had dropped to only 18.8 percent.  These numbers make sense, upon reflection, given that women were pushed back into the kitchen during the post-war bloom of the 1950s.

A common theme in the articles I found at the archives was the expectation was that women would take 10 to 15 years out of their careers to raise a family. In fact, a special assistant to the UW president is quoted in one article from 1966 saying, “It is a really problem for a department head to open his mind to taking on a person of this kind,” (emphases is mine).  Reading this puts EYH founder Dr. Anna Maria Williams’ comments in context—it was hard enough to one of the few women in science and challenging the overarching gender stereotypes implicit in the system was out of reach. The challenge for our group at the moment is how to convey this context to viewers, the majority of whom are likely to be unaware, like we were before this project, of the extend of the discrimination against women during the 1950s and even through the 1960s.

It is truly amazing that what started the vision of a small group of women in Sigma Delta Epsilon in 1959 has not only survived but is thriving today and continues to engage young women in the opportunities for women in scientific careers.

While the program celebrated its 50th anniversary back in 2009, it is still going strong and I’m happy to share the video I co-directed and produced with Sarah Peters, Ashley Sandbeck and Sarah Shafer as part of LSC 620 with Professor Patty Loew:

While it’s a ways off, the 2012 Expanding Your Horizons program is set for November 3rd on the UW-Madison campus.

While we still have a ways to go to reach full gender parity in STEM fields, I’m thankful that we’ve moved beyond women “doing research” in the kitchen thanks to the efforts of those who challenged the status quo throughout the 20th century, paving the way for women in science and technology today.

Sources:
“Women and Higher Education: With Special Reference to the University of Wisconsin,” by E.B. Fred, from the December 1962 issue of The Journal of Experimental Education.

“Women’s Chances in Science Slim,” by D. White Austin, from the March 21, 1966 edition of The Milwaukee Journal.

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