The name 500 Women Scientists is a bit of a misnomer.

Since the grassroots organization launched its searchable database of women scientists in January 2018, more than 8,500 researchers across the globe have shared their information so that journalists, conference organizers, and teachers can tap into their expertise. From “manels” to meetings with an abundance of Michaels, the leaders of 500 Women Scientists say the need for their database is clear. And now, they have data to demonstrate its impact.

In a new paper published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Biology, the researchers behind 500 Women Scientists report that their platform has been accessed more than 100,000 times. And among 1,200 participants surveyed about their experience, 11 percent said they had been contacted as a result of the database for media interviews, peer review, panels, and other opportunities.

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The group has ambitious plans to keep expanding its reach. They’re raising money to start a fellowship for women of color working to make science more open and accessible and they have already launched an affiliate group, 500 Women in Medicine.

STAT spoke with neuroscientist Elizabeth McCullagh and molecular biologist Maryam Zaringhalam, two members of the leadership team of 500 Women Scientists who were also the co-authors of the new paper.

500 Women Scientists started with an open letter back in 2016. What was the goal of that letter?

MZ: The open letter was a pledge to not only in the coming years stand up for science, but for the people who are doing science and for the people who should be benefiting from science. Particularly those people who come from marginalized backgrounds such as women, immigrants, people from the LGBTQ community, people of color, people with disabilities. And the letter went viral. Five hundred [signatures] was an aspirational number — [we thought,] if we could get 500 women to sign on to this pledge, that would be great. … And here we are today.

What do you think it says that so many women have signed on to be a part of this community?

EM: To me, it really means that women feel underrepresented in their field in a lot of ways and they want to correct that. I think a lot of women, we tend to volunteer our time very readily. I think a lot of women recognize that we need to be advocates for ourselves [and] that one of the only ways to really fight this is to put ourselves out there and be available.

MZ: We’re scientists. We’re lovers of evidence and data points. And so now anytime somebody tells us they couldn’t find someone or there just aren’t enough women in STEM fields, we can point them to [the database] and say, “Well, actually, this is the tip of the iceberg, and there’s over 8,000.” And so having that kind of evidence really within the database is really helpful. I think there’s a desire among the community to be one of those data points.

Can you talk about the importance of having more women scientists in the public space, whether that’s news articles or panels or conferences?

MZ: One is just a mere matter of representation. I think very often this narrative gets spun that there aren’t women scientists because perhaps women aren’t interested in doing science or they’re intrinsically less capable of doing science. So ensuring that women’s voices are represented in the media narratives is really essential for showing that, “No, we are here, it’s just that people haven’t necessarily been aware of us or done the work to find us.”

Another [is] when we get into science that is perhaps more controversial, say the neuroscience of gender differences. Having that woman’s perspective to correct for the bias that has long been woven into the narrative of science and been taken to be fact — rather than an interpretation of some evidence filtered through a bias — is really important to make sure that women have the opportunity to correct narratives that may actually be damaging for us.

You have scientists from at least 133 countries in the database. What’s the impact of having that kind of representation among scientists?

EM: In particular in areas where there’s a lot of underrepresentation of women in the public sphere, not just in science, it’s really important that women and girls can see that there are women represented and that it is an attainable field for them.

MZ: When we’re talking about things like climate change, that manifests differently in the developed world versus the developing world. And so I think having those first-hand perspectives from people who are experiencing climate change and environmental conservation issues [differently] is really valuable.

500 Women Scientists
The leadership team of 500 Women Scientists, a grassroots organization that built a database of women scientists. Courtesy 500 Women Scientists

How do you see 500 Women Scientists growing and evolving in the coming years?

EM: [Last month we launched] Sci Mom Journey, [a campaign to raise awareness about the challenges mothers in science face]. It’s a really important initiative that we’re going to continue, in various ways, by promoting women who choose to be moms or are trying to become moms. That’s a huge issue, too. We’ve recognized now … that this is an ongoing problem that we are going to have to revisit and talk about and keep on the forefront of people’s minds. That’s really one of the only ways to make things equitable, is to talk about these issues.

MZ: Another project that we’re really excited about is this is a fellowship that we’re launching called Fellowship for the Future, which is meant to recognize the work of women of color who are leading and working on projects that align with our mission: to make science open, inclusive, and accessible, in order to better serve society. Often the people who are at the forefront of the equity inclusion space are women of color, and that that work often goes unawarded. And so we want to provide them with professional development and enhance their skills, as well as [offer] financial support for those projects. … What we’re hoping to do is to add whatever puzzle pieces are needed and lend our network of thousands of women with all kinds of different expertise … to bring these ideas to life. [We want to] give women the support they need and recognition they deserve so that they’re not passing on their ideas to people who have more power or more visibility.

And you also launched 500 Women in Medicine in December. What was the goal of that?

EM: Women in medicine are also very underrepresented. And so the goal was to increase the participation of women in medicine in things like our request platform, and to get voices from women in medicine as well, to help support a lot of our initiatives that we’re working on as scientists.

Anecdotally, do you feel like things are getting better?

EM: I’ve heard there’s improvement. That’s part of what we actually want to capture a little bit more with a revamp of the request platform. Right now, we really have no metrics to measure efficacy of the platform. … I’ve heard from a lot of people [that] they’re using the platform and that they offered a keynote position to this woman because they found her through the platform. Or they as a conference coordinator exclusively use the platform to make sure that their panels are diverse, etc. But it’s hard to actually quantify that and I think there’s still a long way to go, unfortunately.

MZ: There’s also been really great awareness-raising work that’s been done within the journalism community. For example, Ed Yong and Adrienne LaFrance at the Atlantic, who have begun counting the gender ratio [of their sources]. … I think more people are paying more attention to their sources and the gender makeup there.

Is there anything else you’d want readers to know?

MZ: If your readers are women scientists, they should sign up.

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