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Celebrating Women in Science

Recently, the New York Times published the provocative op-ed, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” which described a soon-to-be-published study that found that experiences of young and midcareer women in math-intensive fields are, for the most part, similar to those of their male counterparts in terms of hiring, pay, tenure and promotion, funding, and publishing. Many scientists and writers crafted quick rebuttals about the experience of women in science, as they saw it. See articles in Slate and Science, for example.

Women in science pic largerNo matter the data, the interpretation, or the personal experience, gender equity in academia is a perennial topic at a national and local level. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, for instance, women typically comprise about one quarter of full professors in basic science fields. Statistics from this 2014 report show that while women now represent half of all medical school graduates, they remain underrepresented among faculty in both basic science and clinical medicine, especially as they move up the ladder from assistant professor to full professor.

But important strides have been made within institutions, and even in subspecialties. For example, here at Penn Medicine, the female-to-male ratio of the Cell and Developmental Biology (CDB) Department, at the Perelman School of Medicine, is an exception to a prevailing climate of male dominance in the sciences. Of 20 standing faculty members, there are six full professors who are women in CDB, with several more women who have assistant, associate, or secondary appointments in the department. And, each of the female professors holds leadership positions in academia and professional societies, and all are internationally recognized for their research.

Capitalizing on the department’s collective experience in advancing the careers of outstanding women in the sciences, it recently held a day-long symposium, “Celebrating Women in Science.” The talks devoted to science featured an all-woman panel from CDB presenting highlights from their research, starting off with a keynote by Nobel Laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, PhD, from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. She spoke about the genetic and cellular mechanisms behind the diverse colored, spotted, and striped patterns in zebrafish.

The career part of the symposium, “Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Stories of Academic Success in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology,” included a panel of stellar researchers from CDB and Shirley Tilghman, PhD, past president of Princeton University. The panel, moderated by Betsy Myers, PhD, program director for medical research for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, addressed a series of intertwined work-and-life-related issues – ones that apply to both men and women.

The theme of “balance” ran through much of the good advice the panel imparted to the audience. One of the issues that exemplified this was a discussion about how and when to say “No” to some of the competing duties and opportunities that come up in a research career.

One panelist observed that the middle of one’s career - while establishing an independent lab after postdoctoral training - is a prime time to learn how to pick and choose outside duties, such as committee work. This is the exact time when a researcher needs to concentrate on her or his science, when additional professional responsibilities may hamper that focus.

Panelists noted that certain activities, such as volunteering on seminar committees, can be advantageous for younger investigators, since they provide a way to get to know established scientists in the field and to become more familiar to key leaders who make decisions on funding and publications.

Learning to balance work and home life adds another layer of complexity for any academician. The panelists observed that it is key to establish “ground rules” with partners very early - that responsibilities in family life must be shared - to the benefit of all. One of the few men in the audience described how he and his wife have worked with a couples counselor to figure out an equitable division of labor. Making strides toward creating a family-friendly lab, panelists noted, may be as simple as considering the best times to hold meetings: Don't schedule a meeting at 5:30 p.m. – a tough hour for parents to accommodate.

Another practical topic discussed was tips on managing a lab, especially delegating tasks among members. Many of the panelists stated that giving autonomy to members of a lab and sharing tasks and responsibilities is “good for the team because it shows you have trust.” For example a panelist suggested that when a faculty member is invited to give a talk or review a paper, they can assign it to a senior postdoc.

At the end of the day, Dr. Tilghman gave a keynote entitled, “The Best of Times; the Worst of Times – Navigating as a Woman in Science.” In this talk she started by highlighting notable examples of highly successful women throughout all math and science fields. She then contrasted the breadth of technological advances available for research with the still undeniable presence of professional obstacles for women in science. She suggested that institutions could address unconscious bias against women by openly discussing the presence of that bias -- to raise awareness with both male and female faculty – as well as training faculty to identify and address their own biases.

Perhaps, most importantly, having access to female mentors is a powerful overall ingredient for the advancement of women in science. The more successful women there are in a given field generation after generation, the more future ranks of scientists can learn from them – both men and women.

Evidence of that cycle was certainly inherent in the number of the women faculty at the symposium who also trained with women: Marisa Bartolomei, PhD, a professor of Cell and Developmental Biology and speaker, was a postdoc with Tilghman; Mary Mullins, PhD, also a professor of Cell and Developmental Biology and speaker, was a postdoc with Nüsslein-Volhard; and Nancy Speck, PhD, a professor of Cell and Developmental Biology and panelist, trained with Nancy Hopkins, PhD, a professor of Biology at MIT.

Image: Top row, from left: Shelley Berger, Nancy Bonini, Nancy Speck, Mary Mullins, Marisa Bartolomei. Bottom row, from left, Sarah Millar, Clara Franzini-Armstrong, Amy Gutmann, Celeste Simon. Daniel Burke Photography

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