Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Christabel_PankhurstAwesome WomanOfScience and Editor of the Journal of General Physiology, Prof. Sharona Gordon, just wrote a very interesting and thought-provoking editorial about gender equality in Physiology. Although it is pointed at that field, her words can be generally expanded to all fields of science. See the full article here (

My favorite part of the article is the extrapolation of time to reach parity at the faculty level. Despite that 50% or more of the graduate students in physiology (and many other life sciences) are female, the percentage of faculty are strikingly low (only about 30%). Interestingly, the rate of female faculty is increasingly linearly, and extrapolating that line means that parity will be achieved in 40 years! I hope that is true, but I can’t help thinking that the level will asymptote to 50%, so it might well take longer than the initial linear dependence implies.

One of the main points of the article is that academics often choose to train their male students more/better than female students. Indeed mentoring is essential to getting more women and minorities through the pipeline. Yet, what is holding us back is that we select students who look like us or act like us to help propel them ahead.  I think we all treat trainees differently from one another. Sometimes it is because they are very different people, and they each need specialized treatment and mentoring, but sometimes there is something else. And you must think about it and analyze it. I sometimes worry that I inadvertently act sexist or racist, although I don’t think I have been after assessing my actions. Part of my worry is because I have had several African American undergraduates in the lab, but none have gone to grad school for a Ph.D. On the other hand, I have inadvertently convinced a number of women to go to graduate school without really trying. Often, I just tell them they *could* go, and ask if they are applying. Sometimes that nudge of support is all students really need.

As for my grad students, they (all women) look at me and what I do, and want to jump ship. I think they see that it is such a struggle. A struggle for money, a struggle for respect, a struggle to get published, a struggle to manage and mentor. They have their eyes open, and they have said, “If it is this hard for her, I don’t want it.” I feel badly that I have pushed them away from academia on accident. But, I am not one to sugar coat it or lie.

Another point I particularly like is the idea that the women who are becoming faculty this year are just as much pioneers as those who entered 15 years ago or 30 years ago. Perhaps the problems faced by this year’s faculty are slightly different from those faced by a woman entering 15 or 30 years ago, but this blog and many others prove that they are actually, perhaps surprisingly or not, the same. I certainly feel like a pioneer, and my attempt to help other women – the next generation – is written all over these blog pages. Some senior women have lamented to me that I still have to fight and write blog entries and feel the pull to take a stand and fight. They were hoping that my generation would be the one to have it easy. But, if the calculations found in this publication are correct, it will take at least another half century for parity – and that’s in disciplines with 50% females in grad school. Physics and engineering are still <30% women in grad school.

So, what do you think? What are your opinions about this recent article? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

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