Monday, June 13, 2011

Do Women Scientists Have to be Made of Steel or Titanium?

As I noted in an earlier blogpost, the 2011 World Science Festival, which concluded last week in NYC, had a feature event on Women in Science.

Gina Kolata of The New York Times, brought together several of the women scientists that had taken part in the Spotlight: Women in Science event for a roundtable in which she posed questions to them about the challenges that they had faced, their successes, and asked them for advice that they would offer to their daughters regarding science.

In the Q&A, one heard of the support that institutions need to provide for scientists to be able to do their work and one point specifically resonated with me. Dr. Joy Hirsch, who is a neuroscientist at Columbia, stated: There is one very important component here that is worth raising, and I think that is the need for institutional procedure and commitment to bring women on board. When I was at Yale, I was the chairman of the Status of Women Committee for a long period of time. During that time Yale as an institution had a major commitment to raise the visibility and the numbers of women, and we did exactly as you described without a compromise at all in quality. It is not that we just teach our women to be self-promoting and to be excellent. We must also, I think, take the responsibility of teaching our institutions to be receptive and proactive and even aggressive in this manner.

I have written about the demands that universities put on female academics in terms of service. Isn't it time that universities also start to seriously promote their achievements?!

Also, these top female scientists emphasized the importance of visibility in the profession and of traveling and speaking at conferences, etc. I concur and early on in my career would even fund travel out of my own pocket. Now I have reached a point in my career that much of my travel is funded by sponsors and organizations.

It will be interesting to see whether daughters of female scientists elect to go into science or will "generations be skipped," given that they see how hard their mothers have worked and are working. Then again, we have chosen to have such amazing lives in which no two days are the same, the travel brings you to fascinating places and you get to meet such interesting people, and to work on problems that truly challenge you.

And, yes, as they concluded, we do need to be made of titanium and not just steel.