Science Policy & Funding News

Postelection Angst Spurs Some Women Scientists to Ally and Act

An advocacy group for women scientists has formed in reaction to the contentious 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and expects to participate in the Women's March on Washington this weekend.


The day after the 20 January inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to converge on Washington, D. C., for the Women’s March on Washington. The march, and its offshoots in hundreds of cities across the country and around the world, was organized as a show of support for women’s rights, its organizers say.

Among the crowds, women in white lab coats representing a newly formed advocacy group called 500 Women Scientists will join the marchers in the U.S. capital and elsewhere. In the past few months, the group has quickly gained support for speaking out in defense of women in the sciences.

In an open letter posted to the group’s website in the days following the election, 500 Women Scientists decried the “divisive and destructive” language of the campaign and asserted the group’s fervent commitment to women, science, and the women of science. The letter included an invitation to other women scientists to support the letter’s message by adding their names to the signatory list.

The group quickly learned that its message resonated deeply with women scientists the world over. After surpassing its stated goal of 500 signatures within hours of the posting, the letter continued to accrue signatures in the days and weeks following the election, said Jane Zelikova, a research scientist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and one of the group’s founders.

Zelikova noted that to date, the letter has tallied over 12,000 signatures—all women and all scientists—from more than 100 countries.

Buoyed and driven by the support the letter has received, the nascent group is taking steps to transform from a handful of women scientists who took a popular stand to what might become a new movement in science run by women. The group is focused on enhancing the prospects for women in the sciences and fostering appreciation for science and scientific literacy in the public sphere. It’s also fighting a rear-guard action to protect progress on scientific inclusivity and important scientific advances, like those in climate science, that many of the group’s members feel are threatened after the recent elections in the United States and Europe.

“More strongly than ever…we must protect the gains we have made in making science inclusive for all,” said Jill Baron, a senior scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), past president of the Ecological Society of America, and one of many prominent scientists to sign the letter. (Baron emphasized that her opinion does not necessarily reflect the position of USGS.)

In Support of Women and Science

According to its founders, 500 Women Scientists coalesced in response to the caustic rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign and an antiwoman, antiscience message that many people perceived in President-elect Trump’s statements. However, what began as casual communication swiftly mushroomed into much more.

The group 500 Women Scientists has adopted this photograph of a smooth, blue aster as its symbol.
The group 500 Women Scientists has adopted this photograph of a smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) in Banff National Park in Canada as its symbol. Credit: Sarah Wagner

The letter, drafted in November 2016 just days after the election, grew out of a text message chain connecting far-flung graduate school friends, a forum initially used to track fitness challenge goals, said Zelikova. The five women on the chain—Kelly Ramirez, Zelikova, Theresa Jedd, Teresa Bilinski, and Jessica Metcalf—soon expanded the discussion to a broader email group.

The topics they discussed also grew to include pressures in the workplace that affect women more so than men, such as harassment, condescending or patronizing colleagues, and a lack of mentors in the sciences with whom they could readily identify, said Ramirez, a microbial ecologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Wageningen. The Trump campaign’s references to “nasty women” and potshots at rivals’ looks, among other unsavory comments, only exacerbated these pressures, she noted.

Becoming Activists

Inspired by their online conversations and eager to make things better, the women in the discussion group decided to take action. They posted the open letter “to be a megaphone for all the great ideas and energy” the group received after the election, Ramirez told Eos via Skype.

At the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in December, Samantha Weintraub, one of the authors of the open letter and a staff scientist at the National Ecological Observatory Network in Boulder, Colo., participated in the “Shaping the Roles and Responsibilities of Scientists in the Trump Administration” panel by the Union of Concerned Scientists as a representative for the women’s group. Earlier this month, 500 Women Scientists hosted a breakout session at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology and plans to replicate the effort at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in late January.

Going beyond conference meet-ups and panel participation, 500 Women Scientists plans to facilitate mentoring for young women scientists and is working to establish mentorship training and resources for its members. The group also aspires to improve science literacy in communities across the United States. Through personal interaction, story sharing, and two-way conversations, it aims to rebuild trust between scientists and the public by encouraging its signatories to get involved in their communities, Zelikova said.

To enact these and other plans, the group is maneuvering to establish a nonprofit organization that can fund-raise and implement programming, said Zelikova. In the meantime, she and her colleagues have started Take Action Thursday, a weekly collation of actions that the group’s members can undertake to advance the movement’s cause.

“Enough Is Enough”

Despite interest from men wanting to sign the letter, the group remains focused on making the movement by women, for women. Although at public demonstrations everyone is welcome to participate, the energy and the priorities that drive the movement need to come from the “ladies,” Weintraub explained.

“None of us would have called ourselves activists before November,” Ramirez told Eos. “But we keep repeating: Enough is enough,” she continued. “Why not start now, and why not us?”

—Aaron Sidder (email: [email protected]; @sidquan), Freelance Science Writer

Citation: Sidder, A. (2017), Postelection angst spurs some women scientists to ally and act, Eos, 98, Published on 19 January 2017.
Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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