To investigate perceptions about the state of women in science, the BPS Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women is hosting a blog series where members can express their views on the subject by briefly answering these four questions: In your opinion,
- What is the current state of gender equality in science and biophysics?
- What is the value of having equality and true inclusiveness?
- What is one area that needs attention; and
- What is one thing that can be done right away?
You are encouraged to read and comment on these blog posts, and to volunteer your own answers by emailing them to Laura Phelan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bertrand C.W. Tanner, Assistant Professor, Washington State University
What is the current state of gender equality in science and specifically in biophysics?
BT: This is a really mixed bag. On one hand, there is great progress for the number of women in science. I hear mid- and upper-level administrators in academe, and Program Officers at government granting agencies suggest that things are going great with over half of all undergraduate and graduate students in the life sciences being women. I don’t know the exact numbers, and I know the numbers have improved over the years. However, what I find critically important are two things: 1) I think it is incredibly short-sighted to think that because life sciences are approaching equal men and women trainees, that sciences as a whole is doing an adequate job of including women in science. 2) I perceive a real disconnect between women trainees in undergraduate and graduate biophysics programs, the pressures of choice and opportunity following their PhD graduation, and the few full professors in the academe that are women. I perceive that we are way behind where we need to be in inclusion and diversity on all levels of STEM education in the United States. I cannot comment on other parts of the globe, but that would be a nice addition to this set of blogs, as Biophysics—as a field and as a Society–is growing more international. Moreover, biophysics may be thought of as life science—but the quantitative chops that it takes to really solve the difficult problems we all love happen to reside at the interface of biology, physics, engineering, and computational sciences. This interdisciplinary science is difficult to push into a corner of “life sciences” and it important to recognize that takes a special person to succeed in this exciting field. While we are clearly making progress, we cannot rest on our laurels of some successes. As a field we have a long way to go to be the leaders in a cultural shift that improves our training culture towards an unbiased culture of inclusion and diversity, with satisfactory support for interdisciplinary scientists to thrive at all career levels.
What is the value of striving towards equality and true inclusiveness?
BT: Variety, inclusion, and diversity in the workplace is critical to optimize productivity and performance of the team. Even when we think about the fittest organisms or evolutionary pressures that have led to species diversification, the fundamental components are ‘mixing things up’ and ‘the random chances of changing the system.’ I’m not certain about clear evidence to support these ideas, but I’m sure they exist in business models of teamwork, optimization, and productivity. What I think this can be distilled to, however, is complementary integration of different ideas and backgrounds on a team. This includes diversity at all levels, backgrounds, and socioeconomic demographics.
What is one area that needs attention?
BT: We need to recognize the difficulties that are faced by early and mid-career scientists. Whether a woman or a man, typically we begin building our families between the ages of 20-40. This is also the prime time for our most difficult steps through the career ladder of getting into a good PhD program, succeeding in good publications to graduate, then having to make difficult choices about academia vs. industry. Whether you know it or not, few people who get a PhD actually work in academia. There are many other options in industry, where it pays better and often carries benefits with 6 weeks to 6 months paid maternity and paternity leave, etc. These are real choices that limit the productivity and success of women and men who want to continue their individual research programs and begin to build a family. It all happens with a sacrifice of time in the lab, which hits women much harder than men. This is a real problem and somehow we need to address, discuss, and build a real and proper support/assessment system to value these disparities. It seems like a terrible state of affairs where one has to fear missing out on career research goals to achieve family goals. This is a real problem that limits women from moving up the career ladder in both academia and industry, but more so in academia because the relative number of opportunities for career advancement are much slimmer than industry.
What is the one thing that can be done right away?
BT: Even though multiple levels of solutions are required to make systemic change, I always go back to the daily choices and activities that I can engage with to make a difference. Change starts within, and we can only control what is directly in our power to control each day. Thus, I work to recruit a diverse set of students into my laboratory, and I work with them to encourage their career goals—theirs, not mine. This requires advocacy to ultimately promote them to where they need to be and where they want to go, but one step at a time it makes a difference.