By Sandra Parshall
Here’s a startling fact: women are taking over the forensic science field.
I was aware that most of the female mystery writers I know – and I know a lot – are fascinated by forensics and don’t blanch at the gory details of death investigation, but I didn’t realize until I read a recent Washington Post Magazine article that female students are leading a boom in forensics education. According to the article, universities across the U.S. have added hundreds of new forensics training programs in the past 15 years, to fill the rapidly accelerating demand for people trained in the scientific investigation of crime.
And the majority of students in those programs are women.
As long ago as 2008, a survey of graduate and undergraduate forensics programs showed that 78 percent of students nationwide were female. The percentage is likely higher today.
In the three-year-old forensics program at George Mason University in Fairfax County, VA, 90 percent of the students are female. Why? William Whildin, who worked as a death investigator for 30 years before creating the GMU program, told the Post that “men tend to gravitate toward the gun-carrying jobs” while women enjoy the “more scholarly path.” Women students say they’re drawn to the field by their interest in science, a personal trauma, a desire to help society – or a love of mysteries.
An aptitude for science is essential for anyone who wants to become a real-life CSI. The women enrolling in forensics programs and going on to work in crime investigation are proving that males don’t have an edge when it comes to chemistry, biology, and other disciplines. Men don’t have stronger stomachs either, or tougher sensibilities.
Contrary to some studies that show women try to prevent other females from succeeding in their careers, women in forensics appear genuinely supportive of one another. The Association of Women in Forensic Science, based in Philadelphia, provides “networking opportunities for female forensic professionals as well as educational opportunities, mentoring and outreach programming for female adolescents ages 12-18 with the desire to pursue a career in forensic science.” The organization sponsors workshops, conferences, and other events and offers a wealth of information on its website.
In one of the member profiles on the AWIF site, Pamela J. McInnis, a laboratory director for the Pasadena (Texas) Police Department Crime Lab, offers a look at the life of a woman in the field. The daughter and sister of police officers, she wanted to work in law enforcement but didn’t want to carry a gun. When her father took her to see the crime lab, she was hooked, and she’s been working in forensics for 28 years. She enjoys the variety of cases – every day is different. She has the satisfaction of helping victims and society as a whole. At first, getting the respect of male cops was a problem, but after they worked with her they came to value her expertise and professionalism.
Ms. McInnis has two pieces of advice to anyone interested in a career in forensics. First, forget what you see on television. The work isn’t glamorous, and you won’t be interrogating suspects or making arrests. Second, get a solid grounding in science and develop the critical problem-solving skills you will need.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 19 percent growth in jobs for forensic science technicians between 2010 and 2020. All indications are that the majority of those jobs will be filled by women. Maybe it’s time crime fiction writers caught up with reality and started placing a lot more women at crime scenes and in the lab.