Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, was not a good day for University of Colorado Boulder alums Jane Zelikova and Kelly Ramirez.
The two women woke to a world in which the president-elect of the United States was the same man whose campaign had been rife with, as Zelikova put it, “blatant sexism, criminal disrespect of women, attacks on minorities, immigrants, and the educated ‘elite.’”
Zelikova (PhDEBio’08), then a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science working on climate change issues in Washington, D.C., and Ramirez (PhDEBio’12), a postdoctoral scholar at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, had been friends since meeting in the ecology and evolutionary biology PhD program at CU Boulder. Devastated by the election results, they struck up a four-way text conversation with two other CU colleagues.
“We were upset,” Ramirez says. “But our anger and frustration quickly turned into (a desire) to act.” Within 12 hours, they had sent an email to a couple dozen women scientists in their circle, in an effort to begin organizing and taking action.
They didn’t know they’d just taken the first steps in creating 500 Women Scientists, now a global grassroots organization of more than 20,000 women in science, technology, engineering and math fields that seeks to transform leadership, diversity and public engagement in the sciences.
“I remember thinking, ‘Someone is going to step up to do something,’ then thinking, ‘Oh no! We are the ones!’” says Zelikova, now a senior scientist with California-based Carbon 180, a non-governmental climate-solutions organization.
Hoping to keep up the momentum, they scheduled a meetup at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in early December 2016. That gathering drew not just younger women scientists, but some of the top women in science.
“We had this awesome network of women built up,” Ramirez says. It was then just a matter of, “I know five people I could message right now to do this one thing. We continue today; we’ve just grown the network.”
500 Women Scientists has encouraged women to create independent local chapters they call “pods.” They provide support, and Zelikova—who has been profiled by publications such as Mother Jones and the High Country News—has visited many of the pods, but the agenda is up to local members.
Both at the pod and national levels, the organization responds in the media to issues affecting science, whether it’s allegations of sexual misconduct, the rights of transgender people or a policy debate in Washington.
Countering old-school notions that scientists cannot—or perhaps should not—be advocates, 500 Women Scientists has vigorously promoted not just upholding science, but also recognizing that it has not been immune from inequality and injustice.
“Fighting for social justice is not outside the role of scientists, nor is it something that we can sideline until science is no longer under threat,” Zelikova and Ramirez wrote with four colleagues in the March 8, 2017, issue of Scientific American.
“Defending the rights of minority groups and eliminating all forms of discrimination are essential for our work. Advocating for science requires us to advocate for women. Advocating for women means advocating for gender and racial justice. It means advancing immigrant, disability and LGBTQIA rights, religious freedom, and challenging all forms of discrimination and inequality.”
European men had very different notions of who should be doing science and what science is. It is a human institution not built with equity in mind.”
Science, Zelikova says, has always been political, and scientists should not be silent for fear of alienating the public, politicians or colleagues. In a December blog post she co-wrote for Carbon 180, Zelikova noted that scientists have a long history of important advocacy, such as when nuclear physicists spoke out against nuclear proliferation in the 1980s.
If scientists don’t speak out, Zelikova says, they risk leaving interpretation of their work up to others, who may not always be interested in accurately representing it.
“Who better to translate that nuance and explain what it means than the people doing the work?” she says.
500 Women Scientists is ardently pro-science, yet doesn’t shy from criticizing an institution that has not always been a shining example to the world. Created by white, European men of the Enlightenment, science has often not made room for women and minorities, effectively shutting out their different perspectives, Zelikova says.
The organization’s vision statement reads, in part, “In this new era of anti-science and misinformation, we as women scientists re-affirm our commitment to build a more inclusive society and scientific enterprise.”
“We had a leadership team meeting in the fall of 2018 and someone said something that blew me away: The institutions (of science) are working exactly how they were intended to. The exclusivity and privilege that are preventing people from succeeding in science are a feature, not a bug,” she says.
“European men had very different notions of who should be doing science and what science is. It is a human institution not built with equity in mind.”
500 Women Scientists is a solutions-driven organization, supported by private donations and volunteers. The organization has ambitious plans for the future, including the creation of the Fellowship for the Future, recognizing women of color taking leadership roles in STEM fields. The organization is raising funds for the first cohort, which will be introduced in 2020, and has also received funding to revamp its Request a Woman Scientistplatform, which helps to bring women’s voices into the public sphere.
It also has plans to launch a “science corps” that embeds women scientists in communities for a week at a time as a kind of “domestic science diplomacy,” Zelikova says, as a counter force to a wave of anti-science—and anti-scientist—sentiment that has influenced millions of Americans, from the White House down.
“This is not to indoctrinate people, but to start having those conversations,” she says. “If you know people who do science, it’s harder to vilify them. It makes it harder to accept certain lies as truth if your life experience includes interactions with scientists.”