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Diversity—women in science: Building better balance

This Advertising Feature has been commissioned, edited, and produced by the Science/AAAS Custom Publishing Office

Women leaders in science—from a university president and policy makers to an academic researcher and industrial scientists—see improvements in this field’s gender balance, but they also know that more must be done. An increasing number of women are entering scientific studies in college, but better ways are needed to keep these women in science and to help them grow into leadership positions.

When it comes to women in science these days, their success shows just how much they have accomplished. Nonetheless, more work remains to put men and women on equal ground in science and engineering. “There’s good news and bad news, “ says Shirley M. Malcom, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s directorate for education and human resource programs. “Women have flocked to the biological sciences, and we nearly have parity with men at the doctoral level,” she says. Clearly, that is good news. On the other hand, says Malcom, “There is not the advancement expected, given the participation by women in science.”

In September, the U.S. National Academies released a new report called “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” (available at ). This report indicates that women earn more than half of all bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering, and almost 40 percent of the doctoral degrees in the same areas. Nonetheless, fewer women than men make the transition to faculty careers, and those women who do “typically receive fewer resources and less support than their male colleagues,” according to this report. In part, this shows that attrition impacts women much more than men along the path from science student to science professional. “There’s leakage of women in every step of the system,” says Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami and chair of the panel that wrote the report. Still, she says, “This is an enormously positive report.” That upbeat perspective reflects a crucial success: Today’s leaders know how the system must be refined to bring in and retain more women in this area in the future.

A review of role models

For young women to aspire to careers in science and engineering, they need high-powered leaders to emulate. In academics and private organizations, there are several examples: including Susan Hockfield, president at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation; and Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University. Women also hold high-level positions in science organizations run by the government. For example, Donna J. Dean, president of the Association for Women in Science and senior science adviser at Lewis-Burke Associates, LLC, points out that at the U.S. National Institutes of Health four of 27 institute directors are women: Patricia Grady, director of the National Institute of Nursing Research; Story C. Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse; and Elizabeth G. Nabel, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. In scientific and engineering industries, women can also be found in leadership roles: including Stephanie Burns, chairman and chief executive officer of Dow Corning; Susan Desmond-Hellmann, president of product development at Genentech; and Una Ryan, chief executive officer at AVANT Immunotherapeutics.

Nonetheless, even successful women in science see the field as male dominated. “I’m not aware of any area in academics, government, or industry in which many women hold top positions,” says Cris Lewis, head of biochemical pharmacology in small-molecule drug discovery at Genentech. “Women are still clearly in the minority.” Still, opportunities do exist for women. “While not all women aspire to management and upper level positions,” says Janice Kameir, vice president of human resources at Diversa, “the opportunities are there if women take responsibility for their own career success.” She adds, “Throughout industry, there are women in management roles in scientific research and business, but we need to actively find ways to support and encourage women who want to move ahead in our industry.”

In part, having role models can encourage young women to enter and stick with science. Lesley Murray, associate director of translational oncology at Genentech, says, “My path may have been somewhat unusual, since I had mostly female supervisors and mentors, and have also had the privilege of knowing many inspiring women in very senior positions as strong role models.” That experience gives Murray a positive outlook. She says, “Opportunities for women to rise to the top clearly exist in industry, and I have personally never encountered any prejudice because of my gender.”

Young women interested in careers in science or engineering would also benefit from seeing more female role models covered in the media. This year, one pair of women scientists—Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine—gained considerable publicity as winners of the 2006 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. That kind of recognition helps aspiring women scientists and engineers think positive and think big.

A call to computing

Some areas—including computer science—look very appealing for women in the future. Cynthia Breazeal, associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, says, “This is an incredibly rich area careerwise.” She believes that young students might bypass this field because they think it’s just about sitting down and programming. “In principle,” Breazeal says, “this field can be applied to many different disciplines. As in any field, computer science is a constellation of techniques and theories and methodologies. It is much broader than simply learning C++ or Java.”

To encourage students to take up computing, Breazeal believes that introductory courses must take a new approach. Students should be shown the ties between programming and exciting fields, including artificial intelligence, multimedia applications, robotics, and so on. “We need to make it engaging, tangible, and more exciting,” says Breazeal. In part, that means getting students into labs where they can see computing in action. “This field hasn’t homed in on the best presentation yet,” adds Breazeal.

Overall, engineering complex systems demands a wide range of skills. For example, Breazeal says, “Robotics is extremely multidisciplinary—art, design, and technology. You must be more of a Renaissance thinker, so to speak.” Breazeal got excited about robotics when she stumbled over “the deep interaction between technology and the life sciences.” She wants to create an entity whose cognitive and affective processes are inspired by those that animals and people use when they behave in complex environments.

Institutional evolution

Despite all of the advances for women in science, some serious obstacles must still be surmounted. “The more elite the organization,” says Shalala, “the less likely you are to find women, whether you are discussing the National Academies, the National Institutes of Health, or full professors at research universities.” In the past, a lack of qualified women candidates supposedly explained that inequity. “Now, the pools have changed,” Shalala says. “There are no excuses anymore.”

Nonetheless, “Beyond Bias and Barriers” points out that a collection of unconscious actions creates a culture that does not support young women. For instance, Shalala says that the university system does not accommodate child-bearing among women faculty. Moreover, she says, “Academics has been a male culture, and a young female professor might not fit in as comfortably.”

Malcom also sees problems in the current system. “There are things that institutions must do,” she says. “Women need to be given the same front-end resources as males to go into high-end positions.” Dean agrees. She says, “There are necessary cultural changes. For that, I would cite ‘Beyond Bias and Barriers.’ It is absolutely fantastic at laying out all of the systemic changes and approaches that organizations and institutions should take.”

Some changes are already under way. At Princeton, for example, male and female faculty members get an extra year to work toward tenure if they have or adopt a child during the usual tenuring period.

Beneficial changes are also taking place in industry. Lewis sees great value in “institutions or companies, like Genentech, that offer policies and benefits that make the life of a working parent just a little bit easier every day, such as on-site child care, concierge services, financial, legal, dental, and automotive service, emergency rides for commuting parents with sick children, et cetera.” She adds, “This can provide an extra edge that is a huge benefit for working mothers, so they don’t feel that they are forced to choose between being a parent and still having a highly successful career.”

Better molding

To help women work their way to upper end positions, Lewis says, “I believe mentoring can play a very valuable role. Supervisors in upper management positions can make a difference by providing straightforward feedback to ensure that women understand what skills or talents may need additional development.” Other women in science agree with the value of mentoring. As Lewis says, “Sometimes, we need to be reminded how just a little bit of time can have a big influence on a young person’s life.” To learn more about mentoring, see the Association for Women in Science’s A Hand Up ( ) and MentorNet ( ).

Nonetheless, institutions and mentors cannot do all of the work. People must work to improve their odds of getting hired and advancing. “Those who hold top positions understand the value of developing professional competencies, such as management skills and strategic thinking,” says Kameir. “Women who learn to master these skills—while leveraging their own scientific background—are in a good position to take on leadership roles.” In addition, Kameir recommends a career plan “with specific action steps for achieving short-term and long-term goals.” She says that this should include the development of strategic relationships. “If women don’t understand the importance of strategic relationship building, they will work twice as hard for half the reward and recognition,” Kameir says.

In addition, women can even climb up by improving their own expectations. Murray says, “I would encourage women to work on their self-esteem and self-confidence, where we certainly lag behind many male colleagues.” She adds, “Women scientists must learn how to be more assertive, without being overly aggressive, and make the time for networking with both male and female colleagues.”

Also, advancement takes time and persistence. “There are a lot of skills that higher level positions call for that you build up over time,” says Malcom. “You must be able to present well, be clear, be able to communicate in all kinds of spheres—written or oral.” She adds that everyone can benefit from a knowledge of strategic planning, managing people, developing budgets, and understanding the role of policy development.

To develop a network and build skills, Murray encourages all female scientists to join the Association of Women in Science. Likewise, several of the other experts offered the same advice. Murray says, “I have been a member in Palo Alto, California, for several years, and have been impressed by the encouragement this organization gives—helping high school science students, awarding scholarships to community college students with hardships, and being a voice in Washington, D.C., on national issues of critical importance to women in science.”

Getting a head start

In the long run, the scientific community could focus on women at even earlier ages. “It is a really crucial issue to get students excited in science and technology before the undergraduate level,” says Breazeal. “How do we attract more girls from kindergarten through high school?” She has some ideas. “You can imagine an online game that could engage kids in doing science and scientific thinking in ways they care about, and they could have fun with it.” But she adds, “It has to be participatory and engaging, and they have to care about it.”

In the end, being successful depends on loving the work. “You might get discouraged some days,” says Dean, “but if you love it, you will pursue it.” Still, a career in science challenges anyone. “Nothing is perfect,” says Dean. “Even though it can be hard—like encountering someone who says, ‘Girls can’t do science’—just say, ‘I can do it!’”

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