Closing the gender gap in science

How university leaders can help level the playing field

A March report commissioned by the cosmetics company L’OrÁ©al focused on the disproportionate role of women in science. In a nation that prides itself on scientific achievement, the report reveals, less than a third of women actually enter the field, and even fewer graduate and go on to careers.

Laurie Glimcher, the first female dean of Weill Cornell Medical College and the 2014 North American recipient of the L’OrÁ©al-UNESCO For Women in Science Award, believes this imbalance stems from societal obstacles that women face in a male-dominated field. “Women in science need role models and mentors,” she says. “That’s why a program like For Women in Science is so important, because it helps women in research develop a network of support globally, and it identifies role models for younger generations.”

Glimcher attributes her passion, success and carrying of the “scientist torch” to mentorship and self-confidence, severely lacking among girls and women.

According to the “For Women in Science” report, there is a shockingly low number of women in science. Does that surprise you?

I’m not surprised by the numbers, but I’m disappointed in them. Science needs women and women need science. If gender equality existed today, the world would have 300,000 additional scientists and researchers, which, when we think about it, means, going forward, a pool of three million potential women scientists in the next 10 years.

Many women face obstacles when entering a male-dominated field. As the first woman dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, did you encounter those obstacles yourself?

Oh, absolutely. The environment has gotten better for women, but I did experience a fair amount of discrimination when I was in medical school and on the wards.

We’d be making rounds and we’d have a female intern and a male intern and a male junior resident. Whether it was conscious or subconscious, the male resident would instinctively turn to the male intern when a patient was being discussed. And the attending physicians, who were almost entirely male, would turn to the male resident intern as if they were on a different plane than the female intern.

That was not uniformly true, but that certainly was frequent.

I was asked more than once, “Why do you want to go to medical school? You’re attractive. You could get married.”

You wouldn’t say that to a guy, right? You wouldn’t say, “You are a very handsome young man, so why don’t you be a model or something?” It’s very pervasive.

The report says, “A girl graduating from high school has a 35 percent probability to enroll in the scientific Bachelor, 18 percent probability to graduate Bachelor, an 8 percent probability to graduate Master, and a 2 percent probability to be a science Doctor.” What accounts for those declining numbers?

It’s still the case that there is more pressure on women. If a man is somewhat aggressive and ambitious, that’s expected. But if a woman is aggressive and ambitious, she tends to be called abrasive or pushy.

Or worse.

Right. The stereotypes just have not changed. Honestly, I think the biggest problem is trying to have a work-life balance. This is a problem that’s tough to solve, because most women do want to have families. It’s not easy to have kids and devote enough attention to them and have a very high-powered career.

The culture at work needs to not just be male. Don’t get me wrong—there has been progress. But I still find the number of women in senior leadership roles is low. I find that many of my female graduate students and post-docs just tend to be less self-confident.

That’s a troubling observation.

Science is a tough row to hoe. Ninety percent of experiments don’t work. You get your grants rejected and your papers rejected.

If science was easy and it was easy to come up with discoveries, then they would all be done. But it isn’t. It takes a lot of devotion, stubbornness, belief in yourself, belief in the science to stick with it—even if you are discouraged—to just soldier on.

I think that women tend to blame themselves when the experiments aren’t going too well, as opposed to male post-docs and graduate students who just kinda brush it off and say, “Well, that experiment didn’t work. I’m going to do it this way.” Whereas, a woman is more likely to come into my office and say, “Well, I really screwed up here.”

Part of the function of a mentor like myself is to provide not just intellectual support, but emotional support and probably even financial support to try to level the playing field. I have a bunch of ideas on that subject.

What are some of those ideas?

One thing I did, because my laboratory was well-funded, was to provide research-assistant help, technical help, to my female post-docs or graduate students who had primary caregiver responsibility for their children. We hired part-time technicians who could do some of the legwork for the physical experiments so that having an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. day didn’t cripple these women because they couldn’t work 12 hours a day like their male peers.

I thought that was really helpful. The women for whom I provided that went on to do very well. They ended up as tenured professors at academic institutions. Some of them went into the private sector and did very well there. They pursued a certain number of different careers, and successfully.

I think having that boost really made a difference. I did not find resentment from their male colleagues. They understood why I was doing that.

So I think colleges, universities and medical schools should try to find the resources to have such programs. This is one of the things I want to do at Cornell—raise an endowment such that we can offer this to our most talented young female scientists.

It can change a woman’s whole attitude. She can say, “Yeah. I can do this and also spend time with my kids, because I can have my technician do these experiments. I’ll direct her or him on what to do and I can dash out and attend a school function.”

We need to be a little more creative in trying to accommodate women who are very talented scientists who simply can’t work full-time—and I’m not talking about 40 hours a week. I’m talking 60 to 80 hours a week. They want to have some time available for their kids.

How can they be accommodated?

I think it would be great for two women with similar scientific interests to share a lab—the key thing being that each of them had to get full credit for all of the discoveries made in that lab, for all the papers that were written, for all the grants that they receive.

They would share equally and be recognized when it came time for promotion, tenure, or being invited to give talks. They would get equal recognition for the discoveries that were made. But they want to not work 80 hours a week for a few years.

That’s a model physicians and practicing clinicians follow. But the big concern is that when you do that as a scientist, nobody takes you seriously and you don’t get recognized for the contributions. What can university leaders do to help?

It all comes down to the leadership buying into it and providing financial resources. You have to put your money where your mouth is. It’s all very well to be emotionally supportive, intellectually supportive.

But it’s more valuable to say, “I have a technician who can help you.” That would be so important because there’s a big falloff between the assistant professor and the associate professor transition when women get discouraged and leave.

I wasn’t aware of that.

Let’s say you’ve got somebody who has been an assistant professor for three years. She’s gone through her startup package provided by the university, and maybe she has a small grant from the NIH.

Then one day she makes a major discovery, something really exciting. What she most needs to do at that point is to hire a couple more technicians and push it for all it’s worth. But she doesn’t have the funds to do that, and she doesn’t have time to write another grant, because she has a small lab and does most of the experiments herself—and she has two kids at home.

By the time she writes a grant proposal and the NIH sees it and it gets funded—if it gets funded at all—it’s a year later. If the university could provide support equal to an NIH grant, that would make an enormous difference. But it takes money—we’re talking about a $100,000 to $150,000 at least for a year—to allow that young scientist to go for it.

That’s something that I’m trying to do, but none of us do well enough. I consider being a mentor the most important thing that I’ve done as a scientist. Of the awards that I’ve been fortunate to receive, the ones I’m proudest of are the mentoring awards. When I pick up a journal and I see a beautiful piece of work from somebody I’ve trained who now has their own lab, it makes my heart sing.

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