By Abbey States
March is Women’s History Month and while it’s been more than a century since the first International Women’s Day in 1911, for those in scientific career fields it can also be an annual reminder that women in science are by and large still underrepresented and underpaid. Now that it seems progress has stalled on closing this gender gap, it’s more important than ever to seek inspiration from the women that have been leaders of change in science and legislation in America for decades.
Women have played a critical role in the environmental movement since long before the EPA existed. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” galvanized the public in favor of environmental conservation, spurring the federal government to take action on pesticide regulation and water quality in the 1960s. Hazel Johnson’s crusade against urban pollution led to the passing of the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 in 1994; she was also one of the first champions of sustainable community development. Of particular significance in the region is Lois Gibbs, a housewife from upstate New York whose activism against the hazardous waste polluting her Love Canal community inspired the creation of the EPA’s Superfund program, used to locate and remediate toxic waste sites throughout the country.
In planning for this year’s Women’s History Month, I was struck by the power of these women not only as environmental activists, but also as storytellers. Their leadership and communication skills are why they are remembered because they were the vehicles for the important environmental issues they worked to advance. In this vein, our events focus on women storytellers and science popularizers that are making waves today.
The book club of the Women in Science and Engineering Council, started last year in our region, selects recently published science books written by women, many of whom are journalists first and science enthusiasts second. “ Full Body Burden” by Kristen Iversen, “Gulp” by Mary Roach, and “Breasts” by Florence Williams are a few great titles that combine personal anecdotes with scientific literature and a bit of history to create compelling reads that also succeed in conveying important information.
This month we also hosted a viewing of the three-part PBS documentary series Makers: Women Who Make America. This film, produced by women, celebrates the last century’s social revolution through the stories of some of the key figures in the women’s rights movement, as well as those it impacted.
Income parity for scientific careers across gender lines will improve when more women are inspired to enter and stay in these jobs, changing the culture from within. It is more important than ever to recognize those that inspire us to do so through their storytelling and popularization of important issues in science.
About the Author: Abbey States has been a Physical Scientist with the Superfund Program Support Branch since 2010 and is the current Women in Science and Engineering Special Emphasis Program Manager for EPA Region 2. She studied chemistry at Tufts University and has a graduate degree from the University of Auckland. Prior to joining the EPA, Abbey worked as a field sampler on Superfund sites, a laboratory analyst, and a chimney stack tester.