I have been sitting on the sidelines watching, reading and cheering (no, not cheerleading—let’s not get into that debate…) as I follow the blogs, commentaries, lectures and personal examples of wonderful women in science who are leaders of the movement towards equal representation, opportunity and equality. I am honored to be among several who blog regularly here at this site, in particular the superb blogs of Jenny Rohn (Mind the Gap) and Athene Donald (Athene Donald’s blog), and of course many others.
I agree 100% with everything being said. My spouse unconditionally agrees that I am a certified feminist. So now what? How can I translate this into action?
Please, this is a serious question, and I invite input on the matter. The gap between “declaration” and “doing” is beginning to bother me.
Until now I was fighting for my own career, my own survival. Now that I have a foothold (also known as tenure), I feel compelled to do more for science, women in science and minorities in science (a matter which I believe is separate and I will come to shortly).
I have always been puzzled by women who choose not to work and stay home to raise children. Of course I ‘accept’ this as a woman’s right, or a couple’s right to decide how to manage their own lives. But from my perspective, a person is defined by their work. This does not mean that people who work in tasks outside science are inferior. No, my point is that I hold very high respect for someone who takes her/his job seriously and is good or efficient at it. Believe me, I am full of respect for the checkout person at the supermarket who rapidly checks me out. I am in awe of the clerk at the bank who quickly processes my request, and the plumber who quickly diagnoses and fixes the leak in my toilet. It is not an elitist respect, but simple respect for a job well done. And I am certain that each and every one of these workers goes home at the end of the day, proud of their mastery at work.
Women who choose to stay home puzzle me—regardless of whether their families have enough money to afford this practice. The reason is that to me, staying home symbolizes a person’s giving up on her/his own career in favor of the next generation. Well it’s important to ensure survival of the next generation, but once our children are born, do we give up our own identity to promote theirs?
Throughout my own career I have had strong female role models. My Masters and Ph.D. advisors were both female, and the latter played a particularly strong role in shaping my scientific career. Another tremendous female scientist with whom I had the honor of being affiliated, was Dr. Peggy Wheelock. She was a wonderful person who played a unique and special role in promoting the careers of newly-independent researchers, and women in science. She was the type of person who would pick up the phone, call me, and say: “I was thinking about your career, and it’s time for you to get on a journal editorial board or two. E-mail this editor—if he tells you that I am already on the board and he doesn’t want another person from the same institute—just tell him I said to take me off.” This outstanding example of mentorship—and giving me the feeling that I was not alone in my career battle—is something I will never forget, and will do my best to pass on to my students, both female and male.
Well, back to the main question: what can I do to prove my loyalty to feminist values? As a parent, I promote the idea of gender equality, equal opportunities, and no glass ceilings. I am sure that this message is well understood. In my own laboratory, I never look at gender as a reason for favoring one student or postdoc over another, and I already have 75% females in the lab. So no ‘leveling of the playing field’ is needed at this stage. My graduated students have gone on to postdoctoral positions, and I am doing my best to help an outstanding female student to obtain a well-deserved faculty position. But this is hardly feminism; it is just doing what any mentor should naturally do.
I was recently asked to be Chairperson of a grant review study section. I received a pile of charts explaining the association’s policies and “target ratios” for women reviewers in the study panels. The aim, of course, is 1:1. My own panel currently has an 8:1 male:female ratio, and my first task was to nominate 4 women scientists to fill in the 3-4 slots that are open. So perhaps this was my first ever opportunity to institute some minor change for the better.
So where is the problem? If I have 75% female students who are among the best in the department, and they are succeeding as graduate students and going on to promising careers, how is it that the faculty in my department (as well as the grant review study section) is 90% male? Where are we going wrong?
Before trying to answer and asking for input on this important question, I would like to bring in an additional complex issue—primarily for the purpose of comparing and contrasting the situation. This is the issue of minorities in science.
As it turns out, my grant review group also has targets for reviewers who are ‘minorities’. I use the quotations here because minorities have been qualified into two sections: 1) under-represented minorities, and 2) minorities.
The under-represented minorities are scientists who are African American or ‘black’, of Hispanic, Alaskan, Native American or Polynesian descent. Please forgive me if I’ve inadvertently left any under-represented minorities out of the equation, as I don’t have the forms in front of me.
As an “aside”, I must say that I personally don’t really understand this type of categorization. I would be catalogued as “white”, although my own skin is more of a beige/pink/brown hue. It’s also not clear to me why those of North African descent are considered differently on this artificial scale than those of Hispanic descent—are there more North African scientists? Well, this categorization probably deserves a blog by someone more knowledgeable in evolution and anthropology, so I’ll get back to the point.
The other ‘minorities’ are qualified by those of Asian descent, and it turns out that reviewers of Chinese and Indian descent are not really minorities—at least in science—and some study sections even have a majority of reviewers from these countries.
So for all practical purposes, I propose in this blog to ignore the latter ‘minority’, as they are well represented in science. Now, with regards to all the under-represented minorities—who truly are under-represented—what is the reason for this? Without providing numbers and statistics, I think it is easy to see the reason—there are simply very few graduate students proportionally who belong to the above under-represented minority groups. Probably, this has to do with the fact that there are proportionally low levels of undergraduate students from these groups studying science—and perhaps in university overall.
All of this leads of to the conclusion that, as opposed to the situation with women in science, there is a problem early on somewhere in the education of these minorities. Women, on the other hand, appear to encounter difficulties only much, much later on, in obtaining and/or maintaining faculty positions.
Thus, it would be easy to contrast these two groups of minorities and suggest that lack of access to a good (science) education is the major concern for the under-represented minorities, whereas with women, the central problem comes from lack of career advancement at the postdoctoral level and above. Why?
I am certain that Athene and Jenny’s blogs will shed a lot more light on these issues than I can, with my limited perspective, but I would like to propose that there is an early educational issue that might still need to be rectified in this case as well. It is not the science level or content that is at stake, but rather the lack of sufficient women-in-science models—something that I know is noticed by girls in school at an early age, that may play a part of the attrition of women in science at the higher levels. Obviously the “glass ceilings” set by male scientists is a major reason (among many others, including women ‘sacrificing their careers’ for those of their partners)—but I suggest that even reading about historical experiments performed almost exclusively by males has so permeated scientific culture that it will take a conscious effort by parents and educators to explain and prepare girls and young women to charge forward in science and not look back. I am optimistic that in my lifetime we will see equality and justice.