Lessons from the Earth Science Women’s Network

EarthzineOriginal, Women in STEM 2016

Peer networks connect scientists with mentors and career resources.


Informal networks that provide peer support play a critical role in advancing the careers of women in fields where they are grossly underrepresented. Peer networks can reduce feelings of isolation and provide access to professional development. The Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) grew from a group of six graduate students and postdocs to a nonprofit organization with more than 3,000 members worldwide in 14 years. ESWN’s activities support women at all career stages and include a new program for college students. We describe the ESWN model for online and in-person community building and peer mentoring that builds upon personal connections to catalyze cultural and institutional change.


Geoscientists are at the frontline of socially relevant work on natural hazards, energy, climate, water, and food security. Despite its importance to understanding Earth’s past, present, and future, the geosciences workforce is one of the least-diverse in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Women receive 39 percent of undergraduate degrees in the Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences (NCSES 2015), yet make up less than 16 percent of the workforce (Gonzales 2010) and only 20 percent of faculty in the geosciences (Glass 2015). Increasing the number of women scientists enhances the social relevance of STEM work and contributes to building a more inclusive society where all groups have the opportunity to pursue STEM learning and employment.

Women are often excluded from informal networks that provide career mentoring and sponsorship (Ibarra 2016). The nonprofit Earth Science Women’s Network plays a critical role in advancing the careers of women in fields where they are underrepresented by reducing professional isolation and insecurity and providing access to information and opportunities (Archie and Laursen 2013). This article presents the ESWN model for community building and peer mentoring. The success of ESWN highlights the potential for deliberate network development to address the barriers facing girls and women in science, and offers a model for adoption across other disciplines.

ESWN was founded by six atmospheric scientists at an American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in 2002. Sharing concerns about life during and after the Ph.D., the women kept in touch via an email group, which quickly grew into a formal Listserv hosted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). A $1 million award from the National Science Foundation launched ESWN into a phase of exponential growth with a professional website and hosting of career development workshops (see Hastings et al. 2015). ESWN became a nonprofit in 2014 and now has more than 3,000 members in more than 60 countries.

Membership growth in ESWN on the original Listserv and the new website created with funding from an NSF award. Image Credit: C. Wiedinmyer

A network for peer mentoring

ESWN’s success hinges on its community-driven approach to mentoring (Adams et al. 2015). All members of the community can be mentors and be mentored at any given moment (Glessmer et al. 2016). All members can share information and feel empowered to organize activities. The women-only space allows for honest discussions of vulnerable topics that may not occur in a mixed-gender environment. For some, ESWN is the only work-related space where they are not the only woman.

“I have joined ESWN after a friend has recommended it for me. I was going through hard times in my thesis, bullied by my supervisor, living in a foreign country, having many issues in advancing in my thesis etc. So through reading the emails, I have found people who were living/have lived the same situation, so it made me feel that I am not alone in this problem, and that the problem isn’t ME like my supervisor has spent two years trying to make me feel that it ‘was all my fault.’ I have never posted my story though, not even anonymously (although I wanted to), but just reading through stories and replies, made me get back a bit of self-confidence and decide to fight for what I want and stand for my opinions.” (Anonymous survey respondent, Archie and Laursen 2013)

Building community online and in person

ESWN builds community by supporting interactions among members online and in person. Members form connections by discipline, career stage, region, or topical interest. Connections started online can translate into real-world collaborations and relationships initiated in person can continue online.

The ESWN website, eswnonline.org, provides password-protected discussion boards where members can share information, post questions, and receive tailored advice. Member Spotlights raise the public visibility of diverse, women scientists. ESWN also maintains a private Facebook group and a Twitter feed (@ESWNtweets) for outreach.

In-person events include a suite of networking and training activities. ESWN members organize meet-ups at professional meetings and in their hometowns.

ESWN has few barriers to membership. The network is free and open to all women with a professional interest in the Earth and environmental sciences (to join, visit eswnonline.org). Membership has broadened beyond the founding core of atmospheric scientists to include astronomers, geologists, ecologists, geographers, soil scientists, oceanographers, climate scientists, environmental and chemical engineers, as well as professionals, educators, journalists, policy analysts, and social scientists with links to the Earth and environmental sciences.

Career training skills development

ESWN has become well-known in the geoscience community for its successful professional development workshops that provide early-career scientists with training in leadership, communication, and management (Glessmer et al. 2012, Hastings et al., 2015).

“Due to one of the workshops, I realized I should negotiate a salary increase. Several ESWN members helped me and offered suggestions. I came back empowered … I did some research, learned I was grossly underpaid compared to my colleagues, I asked for a salary increase during a time when academic budgets were being cut and I got it – no problem! Really made me feel valued.” (Anonymous survey respondent, Archie and Laursen 2013)

Serving the broader community

ESWN manages the free Earth Science Jobs Listserv (ES_JOBS_NET), generously supported by NCAR. ESWN organizes two-three hour-long professional development workshops at scientific conferences, which are open to all, regardless of gender. ESWN-developed and led workshops are a staple of educational activities at the annual AGU Fall Meeting. These well-received short workshops offer practical skills for career advancement (e.g., job search, grant writing, scientific publications), provide networking opportunities, and raise awareness of the diversity of models for success in scientific careers.

The ESWN Board in November 2016.

Extending the ESWN model to undergraduates, a new NSF-funded program, PROGRESS, aims to recruit more women into higher-paying STEM fields. First- and second-year college students are exposed to geoscience careers and empowered with tools to identify their personal strengths, recognize and address gender and racial bias, and learn the importance of building a network of mentors.

Catalyzing cultural and institutional change

Networks have the power to drive institutional change to build a more inclusive society by influencing cultural expectations and policy. For example, an online discussion among ESWN members led to the implementation of nursing facilities at a major conference.

Recent gains in the representation of white women in STEM fields have not extended to other groups. Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Asian Pacific Islander women represent only 5 percent and 7 percent of bachelor’s degrees and tenure-track faculty in the geosciences, respectively (NCSES 2015). At the 2016 AGU Fall meeting, ESWN led a collaborative town hall to highlight successful strategies for recruiting and advancing historically underrepresented Earth scientists at multiple career stages.
One factor contributing to low numbers of women in STEM is a hostile environment created by sexual harassment. Disciplines with research and training-related field travel are particularly vulnerable (e.g., Clancy et al. 2014, Gewin 2015). More than half of almost 500 ESWN members indicated that they had experienced sexual harassment sometime during their career (Archie and Laursen 2013). ESWN is leading efforts to help academic institutions and scientific societies implement professional codes of conduct to improve workplace climate (e.g., Marín-Spiotta et al. 2016).

On July 13, 2017, ESWN will host its first annual Science-A-Thon public fundraiser to show a-day-in-the-life of diverse scientists. Learn more here: www.scienceathon.org

Moving forward

ESWN is dedicated to innovative and practical actions for fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce and raising public awareness of geoscience research and education.
Key to future growth will be an infrastructure to sustain current activities and launch new initiatives. Led by a volunteer board, ESWN is fundraising to build an endowment with a matching grant by the Madison Community Foundation by the end of 2017.

Networks like ESWN have the capacity to empower individuals through peer mentoring for individual career advancement and cultural and institutional change. ESWN strives to educate its members and the broader community about structural inequalities and biases that affect the potential of every person to fulfill their careers and is committed to finding innovative ways to advance science for the benefit of humanity, while providing for the well-being of its practitioners.

We thank Colleen Schmit, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute and the 4W Initiative for Women, Well-being, Wisconsin and the World and the individual and institutional donors who have supported ESWN. The National Center for Atmospheric Research is operated by the University Corp. for Atmospheric Research under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation. EMS was supported by NSF Award BCS-1349952. RTB, EVF, and ASA were supported by NSF Award DUE-1431795.


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