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Experiences and Advice from Successful Women in Science

August 25, 2018

Women in science face many obstacles throughout their careers. While the proportion of women earning PhDs in the sciences has increased from 37% in 1996 to 52% in 2014, there is still a gap in the number of women hired as junior faculty and an even larger gap among tenured faculty [1]. This disparity may be due in part to sexism and implicit bias. Indeed, a 2012 PNAS paper showed that when reviewing applications for lab manager positions, both female and male faculty display bias against female students [2]. Although things have been getting better for women in science, there is still much to be improved. Dr. Mary Mullins, Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Dr. Montserrat Anguera, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences in the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, shared their experiences of successfully navigating through academia as women, as well as their hopes for the future.

 

 

Being a woman in science is not easy, and the male-dominated world of academia can be an isolating place for women, as Dr. Mullins and Dr. Anguera can attest to. Women continue to face sexism and implicit bias as they advance through their careers. Dr. Mullins remembers a specific incident from one of her undergraduate classes that illustrates how men negatively perceive women in science. She was the only woman in a study group for her thermodynamics class, and one of her male classmates told her that there were fewer women in science because their brains were built differently.

 

 

“His theory about me was that I must have had some testosterone as a baby or child and that made my brain better,” she recalls. This comment angered her, and she worked on her own for the rest of the semester. Although she was determined to do well and succeed, she realized that this was how women become isolated in science.

 

Implicit bias is prevalent, and Dr. Anguera believes that the first step to overcome this bias is to recognize it.

 

As Dr. Anguera said, “The only way I think someone can change their behavior is by realizing it, acknowledging it, and actively trying to change it. I think that the more we share our experiences, then the less blinders [there are] to the reality of what’s happening.”

 

 

Having a support network has been critical for both Drs. Mullins and Anguera, both of whom noted that there were more females than males in their graduate classes, which helped create a supportive environment to share their experiences of bias. As Dr. Mullins continued on to become an assistant professor, she was able to turn to other women who held faculty positions at Penn to help her with the transition. Dr. Anguera believes that the attitudes of both men and women towards women and science are changing, and she feels encouraged by the supportive male faculty members who are proactive and are willing to help make change happen. Dr. Mullins agrees with this sentiment.

 

“I think slowly but surely things are getting better for everyone. I think there’s more awareness about issues [that affect women]. An awareness that we need to think about,” she says.

 

For example, Dr. Mullins notes that there is more of an effort to make sure there are more women seminar speakers, since they serve as important role models for students and post-docs Dr. Mullins is also happy that the medical school is finally opening an on-site daycare center, which is something that she and other women senior faculty have been working for. Making the academic workplace more welcoming for mothers is an important step towards supporting women in science.

 

Dr. Mullins’ and Dr. Anguera’s experiences and outlooks for the future show that although women in science face extra hurdles, they can have successful careers as academic scientists. Dr. Mullins’ advice to women is to be confident.

 

“Don’t be afraid. If you feel a little bit uncomfortable, it’s okay. I think women have a lot to contribute, but sometimes their voices are not always heard, and we just have to get more comfortable with [speaking up],” she says.  Dr. Anguera’s advice is to work hard, be persistent, and not to get discouraged.

 

“Nothing is easy, nothing is going to be given to you. When you get beaten down, which biology does, it makes it all that more rewarding when you do experience the highs of discovering stuff,” she says. These words from role models like Dr. Mullins and Dr. Anguera help encourage women who are just beginning their careers doing what they love best - science.

1. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2017. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Available at www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/.

2.  Moss-Racusin CM, Jovidio JF, Brescoll BL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 2012

 

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