Calling All Mentors: Promoting Women in Science
In a trailer that housed Mr. Todd’s fourth grade class, I first realized I would be a scientist. I was a determined 4-foot-tall girl with freckles and, in my innocence, science was the action of possibility. Mr. Todd was the first teacher to encourage my fascination, and I adored him for it. Yet at the same time, I faced the reality of prejudice against my sex. I had earned the coveted first place ranking on multiplication tables. I remember my male peers jeered when I picked out a small hobby motor from the prize box. “You’re a girl,” one said. “You can’t make anything with that.” A week later, I stood before Mr. Todd with a defiant smirk and a clockwork windmill, powered by my prize motor, which he generously allowed me to display on my desk.
I went on to earn a doctorate in neuroscience and, sadly, the fourth grade was not the last time I faced gender bias. I am not alone in the experience. Dedicated elementary school programming has increased the number of girls who major in a STEM discipline (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as undergraduates1. But women still represent less than 20% of many STEM majors2. In my field, about half of neuroscience graduate students are female, but only 25% of tenured faculty in university departments are women2. This is not unique to neuroscience: male scientists in applied and university jobs outnumber women by 2.5 times2. In other words, recruitment of women is improving, but retention is lagging.
The lack of tenured female faculty appears as an implicit bias against women in science. Tautology of women being biologically different from men was used for years to excuse the unbalanced representation in higher education. Recently, however, under the masthead of a top neuroscience journal, this was dismissed in recognition of an implicit bias in hiring and retaining women scientists3. The lack of women faculty is another barrier for female students when weighing the risk of pursuing an academic or applied science post. Increasing diversity in academic departments will improve retention of women in science. The good news is that with awareness comes change; in time we will see more women in higher education. Perhaps we can hurry this along with dedicated mentorship.
I was fortunate as a graduate student to have a second appointment at the Institute of Gerontology, which embraces diversity and champions multi-disciplinary research of aging. In the Institute’s halls are phenomenal mentors who work diligently to create a culture wherein all students, regardless of gender, are encouraged to be leaders in departmental functions and their respective fields of research. And while I have personally benefitted from this, the more important result is that the Institute and the scientific work it produces have benefitted as well. This conclusion follows from the simple truth that inclusion of all voices in the STEM fields is not only a matter of fairness, but also a matter of empirical quality. Mentoring women toward careers in science ensures diversity in the academe, which is the best opportunity for inspiration and innovation. This is a core philosophy of the Institute of Gerontology; one that I have come to value even more in retrospect.
For more on mentoring women in science:
Dean, DJ. (2009). Getting the most out of your mentoring relationships: A handbook for women in STEM. Springer: New York, NY.
Association for Women in Science. http://www.awis.org/
Women in Science. http://www.womeninscience.org/resources.php
1 National Center for Women and Information Technology. “Girls in it: The facts”. www.ncwit.org
2 National Science Foundation. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/2013/start.cfm
3 Editorial. (2010). Wanted: women in research. Nature Neuroscience, 13(3): 267.