Women in Science: Building a Community

Do women do science differently than men? It's a hotly debated topic on newsgroups and in social studies. Regardless of the answer, we do know that there aren't as many women doing science: The higher the level, the fewer women there are. Our experiences as women scientists can be quite different from those of our male colleagues. Students see relatively few women faculty at any level, leading to a paucity of role models in academic science, and perhaps contributing to the so-called "leaky pipeline." Perceived inequities, whether real or imagined, also contribute to the loss of women from science. Thus, we often lack a real community of other women, and it's always hard to be the only one.

In a demanding profession, successful people often have mentors who help them find strategies for survival and give them the benefit of experience. Indeed, "mentoring" has become a current catch-phrase, but finding mentors is not easy. Being an effective mentor requires considerable time and effort, and many potential mentors are themselves in need of mentoring by those further upstream. Many women find it difficult to establish mentoring relationships with older men, who make up the majority of senior scientists. A wise woman should not expect to rely on anyone else in shaping her career, and should be prepared to be independent. If she finds a mentor, she should enjoy her good fortune; if not, she should be equipped to survive without.

In the absence of a mentor, how can we learn from what others have been through, without having to go through the identical experiences? How can we find a virtual, if not a real community, so we can thrive in science?

One strategy is to exchange information through discussion with peers. The women-in-biology newsgroup has been active since 1993. Most participants, however, are students and postdocs. That means there is an ever-changing clientele on the newsgroup, who end up asking many of the same questions that their predecessors did. The newsgroup is helpful for the current participants, but its history is easily overlooked by those coming later. The few of us who have been there since the beginning see a regular cycle of topics. Because most participants are junior, the newsgroup chiefly offers a peer network and a place to air concerns.

Another method of information exchange is the World Wide Web. Better than a book, because it is dynamic and freely accessible, the Internet offers an ever-expanding range of information on a wide variety of topics. The breadth of information reflects the Internet's roots in community and self-publication. There are many sites on the Web relevant to women in science published not only by individuals, but increasingly by institutions. Thus, even women who are isolated can find a virtual community. But this leads to another problem: how to find the relevant pages in a sea of URLs?

I assembled the women-in-biology Internet Launch Page to address this need. It grew from a very personal experience: my reading of an obituary of Elizabeth Keller, who worked with Nobel Laureate Robert Holley on transfer RNA structure. Despite my long-standing interest in women scientists, I knew nothing about her. My office at the Salk Institute used to belong to Holley, so I was particularly intrigued in his collaborator. I turned to the Internet to find out more, alas without much success. But I was inspired to look more exhaustively for pages related to women in science, which I had been collecting for some time in a half-hearted fashion.

First, I sought information on historical contributions of women scientists. I assembled a list of women-in-science organizations. Then I used major search engines for keywords including "women" and "biology" and trawled through the noise for the links worth keeping. This occupied me for several weekends, but resulted in numerous sites worth adding to my bookmarks file.

In late December 1997, I decided these bookmarks would be of interest to others, and I created The Women in Biology Internet Launch Page. In its first appearance, the site was organized around several basic topics including history, education, careers, and aspects of the chilly climate. Originally it was narrowly focused on women in biology and their specific experiences, with the intention of preparing women for good and bad aspects of a career in science.

More recently I expanded the page to include a substantial number of resources about careers in biology in general, and academics in particular. These are equally relevant to men and women, making this a general resource for biologists at all levels. I am especially proud of a comprehensive set of links to so-called "alternative careers" sites, as well as information about surviving every step of the academic path.

The page thus fulfills several roles, mirroring my own multiple positions. As a feminist and a scientist, I want to empower women to succeed at every level of biology. As a tenure-track associate professor, I seek insights as I manage my own career. And, as an advisor to students and postdocs, I want resources to help prepare them for the realities of a scientific profession. For example, I added a number of links about interviewing strategies when a postdoc in my lab was job-hunting.

The women-in-biology page averages about 20 visitors each day. It is thus the little sister to my lab's primary Web site, which accumulates about 250 hits per day. The lab site highlights my own research and provides general information on fission yeast genetics. I keep these pages updated because I support the ideas of community and freely sharing information with others who may need it. This idea of free exchange is also the foundation of the Internet, at least in its original form, prior to the current dot.com frenzy. In our publish-or-perish academic world, there isn't a tangible reward for building such a community, but we ignore it at our peril.

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