Archive for March 9th, 2012

On Being A Female Geologist

March 9th, 2012

Happy International Women’s Day! I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a female geology professor ever since the Wooster Alumni Magazine featured an article on Annie Irish, the first woman on Wooster’s faculty. Her portrait graces the foyer of the Timken Science Library, so I see Annie every Research Friday, yet I’ve never really thought about her role (or mine) in Wooster’s legacy.

The portrait of Annie Irish that presides over the Timken Science Library entry.

Annie clearly made an impact on the Wooster community and was much loved on campus. According to an 1897 Wooster Alumni Bulletin, her portrait was a gift given by alumni (Annie’s former students) to Hoover Cottage. Women’s cottages were one of the many ways that Annie advocated for female students. She envisioned campus housing that would help female students feel comfortable and develop networks. Annie’s legacy is carried on by the Women’s Advisory Board, established in 1892, which provides financial support for international and female students.

Supporting the education of women is a longstanding and widespread issue, particularly in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Every two years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) compiles a report on the status of Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. They’ve found that women are participating in the physical sciences and mathematics at relatively low levels. Although the percentage of physical science degrees awarded to women has grown since the early 1990s, women are still earning those degrees at relatively low levels compared to men.

Percentage of degrees awarded to women in the physical sciences and mathematics between 1990 and 2008. Source: Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2011.

The participation of women in the sciences can be broadened by funding agencies that make it a strategic goal at all academic levels. The NSF ADVANCE program, for example, supports projects that encourage women to pursue academia as a career. Some ADVANCE projects, like MU-ADVANCE at my undergraduate alma mater, make changes at the institutional level. Other ADVANCE projects support women by establishing and maintaining partnerships. The Earth Science Women’s Network is just one example of an ADVANCE project that provides peer-mentoring opportunities for female scientists. At the undergraduate and graduate levels, the Clare Boothe Luce Program supports women who are pursuing degrees in science, engineering, and math. Just this year, Wooster had the good fortune to designate four female science majors as Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars, who will be provided funding to conduct research and travel to conferences.

Funding isn’t the only strategy for supporting female scientists; women need strong role models and effective mentoring. The Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG), for example, is one organization that not only awards scholarships, but also sponsors outreach activities and facilitates mentoring. I didn’t discover AWG until graduate school, which is where I first encountered female geology professors (with the exception of one fabulous female geoscientist who ran an REU that changed my life). This isn’t to say that my undergraduate professors were poor mentors; I just wonder how my perspectives (and those of my classmates) would have changed if we had had a female role model.

Fortunately, strong female geoscientists are somewhat easier to find today. In fact, half of the Wooster Geology Department consists of female faculty members, and this is where I might find my legacy at Wooster. I can encourage women to pursue the geosciences by sharing my experiences, connecting them to resources, and helping them realize their potential. A quick glance at the list of recent College and Departmental award recipients reveals a talented group of female geology majors:

Tricia - One of the four Clare Boothe Luce Scholars from The College of Wooster.

Lindsey - Co-winner of the 2012 Charles B. Moke Prize for showing the greatest improving during her college career.

Sarah - Co-winner of the 2012 Charles B. Moke Prize for showing the greatest improvement during her college career.

Anna - 2012 Karl VerSteeg Prize winner, awarded to the major who has the highest general standing in the middle of the junior year.

Congratulations to these talented young geologists! You are examples of promising young women who enhance the image of female geoscientists everywhere.

UPDATED (11:55 PM): Looking for other posts on female geologists? Try  Looking for Detachment’s 2010 post on Cornelia Clermont Cameron or Scientific American’s post on Geologizing Women. Thanks to @sfoxx for the links!


Dixon, M. 2012. Reconstructing Annie. Wooster 126: 28-31.

Scovel, S.F., and Compton, E., eds. 1897. Alumni Roundtable. The Post-Graduate and Wooster Quarterly XI (4): 339-354.