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What Does It Mean to Be a Woman in STEM?

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Emma Atkinson

Two University of Denver professors are involved in a new film series that explores the funny and not-so-funny experiences of female professionals working in STEM.

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A Black woman in a lab coat peers through the lens of a microscope in a lab.

What good is life if we can’t laugh at the situations we find ourselves in—even if they’re not actually funny?

That’s the concept behind “Womanhood: The Series,” a film series produced by female writers and filmmakers across the United States, that examines what it is, exactly, to be a woman, through storytelling with a humorous twist.

The second season is all about the experiences of women who work in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and will feature six short films. Female STEM professionals from across the country will team up with writers and filmmakers to tell fictionalized stories of their real-life experiences.

University of Denver professor of media, film and journalism studies Sheila Schroeder is one of the filmmakers on the

Professor Sheila Shroeder speaks into a microphone at a podium.
Sheila Schroeder.

project, which was conceptualized by San Diego State faculty Jessica McGaugh.

“We sent a call out into the world for women in STEM to help tell their stories around the things that have happened to them that we want to explore—and these often are very serious issues,” she says.

Schroeder says a friend of hers, a woman who was hired as a professor of neuroscience, shared a story of marginalization at work that really stuck with her.

“They didn't have her office ready,” she recalls. “So where do you think they decided to put her? The copy room. Her mostly male colleagues were coming in and asking her for colored paper, to do the actual copying, to unjam the copier. I mean, you can imagine? She has a PhD in neuroscience!”

The second season of “Womanhood” will feature a story from of one DU’s own—professor of biological sciences Anna Sher, who is passionate about inclusivity in STEM.

Sher is the faculty director of DU-MERISTEM: Mobilizing Equity to Raise Inclusivity in STEM, a National Science Foundation-funded project that aims to recruit, hire and retain STEM faculty from marginalized groups. She also founded DU’s STEM Women Faculty Association.

As a contributor to “Womanhood,” Sher is getting to tell her own story, alongside five other female STEM professionals from around the country.

“I'm hoping that ‘Womanhood: The Series,’ season two, is going to address all kinds of nuances of the experience of being a woman-identified individual in STEM,” she says.

Anna Sher headshot.
Anna Sher.

Sher says it’s important to shed light on the experiences that female STEM professionals have in the working and academic world—especially the negative ones. She says, for example, that students often address her and her female colleagues as “Mrs.” or by their first names, rather than as “professor” or “doctor.”

“Part of that is because our male colleagues don't need to rely on titles as much as women and can establish a culture of informality that works for them, but erodes respect for others,” she says.

Humor, Sher says, is an important aspect of the “Womanhood” project.

“People are more receptive to criticism when it's couched in humor; we're less likely to be defensive and more likely to actually hear what's being said,” she says. Sher relates it to the story of a mainstay of medieval royal courts: “The jester was the one person in the court that the king or queen could actually trust to tell it like it is,” she says. “How could they do that? Not by saying, ‘You're doing it wrong,’ but by making it into something funny.”

She says she’s looking forward to meeting and collaborating with other women in STEM as part of the filmmaking project.

“I love doing creative things, particularly in a context like this, where it's about making a positive difference in society and for other women,” Sher says. “It’s just really exciting to me.”

And DU students will get to join in on the excitement, too. Schroeder’s involvement in “Womanhood” means DU students will get to experience the production of the series firsthand, thanks to Project DU F.I.L.M (Film Initiative Linking Mentors), an extracurricular filmmaking mentorship project headed up by Schroeder herself. Adjunct professor of media, film and journalism studies Roma Sur and student Sophia Holt will also be participating in "Womanhood."

Sher says she hopes audiences of the series will recognize that there’s still lots to be done to “level the playing field” in STEM.

“Specifically in the sciences, it's easy to delude ourselves into thinking that because a few individuals have ‘made it,’ that means that it's a level playing field,” she says. “It's not. It just isn't.”

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