Celebrating women in STEM

Hallie Stebbins (left), Susannah Shoemaker (right)

Celebrating women in STEM

By Susannah Shoemaker and Hallie Stebbins

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Today is the 6th annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This day marks an opportunity to celebrate the brilliant women whose ideas have graced our bookshelves and touched our minds. These women have shown us why we should trust science and how to think on geological timescales; the beauty of mathematics and the way back from extinction. They have deepened our understanding of the world, and of ourselves, through the singular blend of creativity and rigor that informs scientific discovery.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science is also a day that prompts reflection. The numbers of women and girls in STEM, despite the efforts of many, continue to lag stubbornly behind those of men. Less than 30 percent of researchers in STEM worldwide are women. An even smaller number of women go on to write books. If science is driven by new perspectives, then science is missing out when women stay out. To further scientific progress, the perspectives of women—as well as scientists from other historically marginalized groups—are not just welcome, but necessary.

While publishing is perhaps more art than science, we share with our science authors a common goal: bringing into focus a fuller, truer picture of the world we inhabit. We achieve this not simply by acquiring and editing manuscripts; through those manuscripts, we aim to shape ideas, inspire others, and amplify new perspectives. Here, two of our science editors share their own perspectives on what it means to be a woman in the STEM ecosystem.

Susannah Shoemaker, Mathematics & Engineering

One of the most interesting books that I’ve worked on in my career as an editor is Jessica Wynne’s Do Not Erase, a collection of photographs of mathematicians’ chalkboards accompanied by essays from those mathematicians. It’s a joy for many reasons, but particularly because it brings together a diversity of voices in a single volume. One of my favorite lines in the book was written by Hélène Esnault, a mathematician at the Free University of Berlin. She writes, “A proof, when we hold it, is a moment of absolute joy. It is also a farewell. Once it has been produced, it no longer belongs to us: anyone can reproduce it, and use it further.”

The concept of joy and farewell is a familiar one to me, and to all of us in the world of publishing. We work tirelessly to nurture our books, then release them into the world. Though the books are no longer in our hands, they are available for the whole world to read, contemplate, and build upon. I became an editor after five years spent studying applied mathematics: another joy, and another farewell. I chose editing as a career because I wanted to be a part of how scientific knowledge was communicated. I soon realized that this was an ever-evolving target; the process of scientific communication, like that of scientific research, is never truly finished.

This reality is elegantly captured by another essay in Do Not Erase, this time by Katrin Gelfert, a mathematician at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Katrin writes, “Overcoming a mathematical obstacle is like climbing a hill just to get a better view, to experience the pleasure of having reached the top, only to discover that there are even bigger mountains.” One of the “mountains” that we face in publishing science books is the challenge of bringing diverse voices to our lists.

As an editor, my job is to search for new perspectives. The perspectives of women are often difficult to find, buried like treasure beneath the weight of committee meetings and pandemic-era childcare responsibilities. This is especially true in STEM fields, where writing books is not a requirement for tenure. Nonetheless, these perspectives are crucial for how the public perceives science and scientists. My job is to unearth them. It can be a challenge, but I am spurred on by my own experiences. Being a woman in STEM has meant that I have faced obstacles, but I have also received incredible support and encouragement. As my colleague Ingrid Gnerlich put it, being a woman in STEM means being different, and belonging. I aim to foster that same sense of belonging for our authors, so that we can climb new mountains together.

Hallie Stebbins, Computer Science & Neuroscience

It has been my experience, constant through a decade of book publishing, that many misunderstand the role of an acquisitions editor. I’ve sat at more than one holiday table explaining to family and friends that no, my days aren’t spent with my head bent over a manuscript (or looking up at a screen), combing hundreds of pages for grammatical infelicities or the odd typo. Such processes are crucial, of course, to good publishing, but this isn’t what my colleagues and I do. In actuality, being an acquiring editor is highly proactive. I spend my days reading scholarship in my fields, evaluating and conceptualizing potential new book projects, and—the part I most enjoy—talking to scholars about their work, often in hopes of convincing them that book writing, on top of all else they have to do, is not an impossible thing.

In reflecting for this essay on my role within the larger landscape of science publishing, it occurred to me that behind every day of proactivity is the notion of choice. You could say that being an acquisitions editor is almost all about choice: we choose, in concert with our colleagues, which book ideas to pursue as well as who we publish. Beyond that, we choose who we approach for peer reviews, blurbs, advice and recommendations, essentially choosing the network in which we operate. In that, we in book publishing join journal editors, journalists, public intellectuals, and everyone else involved in the scholarly communication ecosystem, all of whom together have the power and responsibility of deciding whose voices should be amplified.

The responsibility of my choices as an editor has never been so obvious to me as it is in my current role at Princeton, growing two young lists in scientific disciplines in which women have been historically significantly under-represented. For me and my colleagues publishing in the sciences, it is usually easier, by the numbers, to pitch a book idea to a white male scholar, or to get that male “foremost authority” to endorse a book for us. But as with all choices, these choices have ripple effects, even more so because the life of a book is long: from proposal, through the writing process, to publication and beyond, is a matter of years—often more than a few. Building the lists we want, lists that embrace a diversity of ideas and perspectives, requires active choice in the here and now.

Women authors, too, often face a harder choice. Though there is of course no singular female experience, the pandemic has underscored the often unequal responsibility of childcare that is placed on women. We know that the decision to write a book while navigating the time constraints of family and academic life, not to mention thorny situations of gender bias, is a difficult one. As editors, we have a core responsibility to support our authors in making that choice, which means not only being attentive to the challenges that women and other underrepresented groups face, but stepping in to help, to the best of our ability.

Of course, ultimately publishers are just one cog in the wheel of scholarly communication, but I try to keep in mind that when it comes to big social change, every choice we make individually matters. And to scientists considering book writing, I would say that the choice to write a book is, yes, weighty, but also one with resounding consequences. Your book is potentially life-changing to readers you may not meet, and almost certainly inspiring to younger colleagues and students, who may themselves choose to write a book down the line. One choice begets another—and the choices each of us makes in service of a more diverse science community matter and should be celebrated.