On the State of Professional Opportunities for Women in Biophysics: Bertrand C.W. Tanner

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,

  1. What is the current state of gender equality in science and biophysics?
  2. What is the value of having equality and true inclusiveness?
  3. What is one area that needs attention; and
  4. 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 lphelan@biophysics.org.


 

tanner-bertBertrand 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.

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On the State of Professional Opportunities for Women in Biophysics: Marina Ramirez-Alvarado

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,

  1. What is the current state of gender equality in science and biophysics?
  2. What is the value of having equality and true inclusiveness?
  3. What is one area that needs attention; and
  4. What is the 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 lphelan@biophysics.org.


Council- Marina_Ramirez_Alvarado

Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Mayo Clinic

What is the current state of gender equality in science and specifically in biophysics?

MRA: Gender equality has definitely improved over the past 25 years since I finished college and embarked on a scientific career, but unfortunately, things are still not great for women in science and biophysics.  We are all struggling with implicit biases that diminish and discourage the work of female scientists and biophysicists. Also, most often, when couples are faced with the two-body problem, the man’s career takes precedence. Many measures of progress, such as for example, the percentage of women professors in STEM fields, show that the pipeline is still leaky, especially at the top of the ladder, for full professors and leadership positions. In my view, a current problem is patchy support: some institutions are supportive, while others are less so; some colleagues are sensitive, supportive, and inclusive, while others are not. Further, even within biophysics, some sub-fields include more female speakers than others, and some journals (including Biophysical Journal) have more female representation in their editorial board than others. The same colleague/interaction/experience may be positive for one female scientist and negative for another. It can be confusing!

What is the value of striving towards equality and true inclusiveness?

MRA: More and more data show that diverse teams are more productive, more creative, and more successful. Female CEOs and female leaders are more effective in making their companies/institutions financially solvent. Female leaders inspire more loyalty and create welcoming and productive atmosphere where everyone feels valued. These seem to me compelling advantages for inclusive environments.

What is one area that needs attention?

MRA: Effective mentoring and increased visibility of female role models can help, and we must concentrate on closing this existing gap. Female scientists need mentors who can guide and advise them along fulfilling roles in research and leadership; further, it will be important to help women scientists identify possible sponsors and develop with them supportive and durable relationships. Mentors must recognize and acknowledge the multiple identities and roles that their mentees have; must learn to empower them to overcome barriers whether in the form of implicit bias, administrative burdens, and the sometimes-dangerous political waters of scientific careers.

What is the one thing that can be done right away?

MRA: We (all scientists) have to get involved. To those of us who are aware of the still real problem of gender inequity in science, I ask that that you speak up, voice your concerns and propose solutions; we have to express our concerns anytime we see gender inequality. To my colleagues who think we solved the problem of gender equality in science, I invite you to listen more to female colleagues, friends, and even relatives; every one of them has a story where she had to work harder than a male peer had to, for the same recognition.

Scientific societies, such as BPS, can play an important role by programming sessions at their annual meeting dedicated to addressing this problem.

In addition to programming educational sessions at their annual meetings, scientific societies can encourage all members to fill out the implicit bias assessment https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/education.html

One last thing: while we have to do more to include women scientists, we must extend an unbiased and welcoming hand to all colleagues regardless of ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc. We need a broader view about what a diverse and inclusive environment is and work diligently to achieve it.

 

 

On the State of Professional Opportunities for Women in Biophysics

GKP 2014At last year’s BPS meeting, while talking with several of you about how the Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW) can better serve the BPS membership, I learned — much to my surprise — that the perception of gender equality and fairness in biophysics varies widely among our colleagues. At one extreme, some expressed disappointment that “not much has changed” since CPOW was formed in 1972; at the other, some declared “mission accomplished.” I suspect that like me, many of you will disagree with both statements, but I cannot guess where on the spectrum a consensus, if there is one, may lie.

To investigate these perceptions, CPOW will host a blog series where members can express their views on the subject by briefly answering these four questions: In your opinion,

  1. What is the current state of gender equality in science and biophysics?
  2. What is the value of having equality and true inclusiveness?
  3. What is one area that needs attention; and
  4. What is the one thing that can be done right away?

We kick off this initiative by publishing below answers from our fearless BPS Past President Suzanne Scarlata. You are encouraged to read and comment on these blog posts, and to volunteer your own answers by emailing them to Laura Phelan at lphelan@biophysics.org.

Thank you for your engagement. I look forward to hearing from you,

—Gabriela K. Popescu, CPOW Chair


sfscarlata

Suzanne Scarlata, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

What is the current state of gender equality in science and biophysics?

Compared to where we were 20 years ago, we’ve made a great deal of progress. Women now populate key positions in companies, universities, and scientific organizations. While we are still underrepresented especially in top positions, our numbers are growing and the trend is going up. However, we are far from shattering the glass ceiling.

Women have a better support system than in years past. In previous years when only a few senior women were around, women had to rely on father figures for advice in making their way through the system, which, of course, could limit the content of conversations. Now there are more women mentors both locally and through groups like the BPS that can bring together women to share their thoughts.

For the most part, I feel that time is on our side. Most colleagues my age and younger are fairly unbiased and this percentage is increasing every decade. Just a few years ago, I attended a meeting where I was the only female speaker. One of organizers was openly misogynistic which seemed to bother my male colleagues even more than me.

What is the value of having equality and true inclusiveness?

It goes without saying that having true inclusiveness and equality is invaluable. Everyone should be able to have the opportunity to work at their full potential and be appreciated and respected for what they do.

What is one area that needs attention?

Scientifically, we need to continue to promote ourselves (unfortunately, most of us are really bad at self-promotion) and our female colleagues by suggesting them for talks, for positions on editorial boards, and other leadership positions. We need to cite their articles when appropriate and give women the credit they deserve.

Importantly, we need to continually question whether we are treating our students, post-docs, and peers with encouragement and respect. The other day, a female undergraduate biochemistry major with a high GPA told me that her male advisor thought that she should focus on a career in writing and not science once she graduates. I had different advice!

What is the one thing that can be done right away?

While some countries have experienced recent setbacks regarding gender bias, we need to be persistent in encouraging equality both in and out of the lab. Nonscientists may not be aware of the many opportunities there are for their daughters in science, or aware of the problems they might encounter. We need to encourage women at all levels so that our numbers will grow.

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg (one of the nine members of the United States Supreme Court) was asked when she thinks there will be enough women on the court, she replied, “And my answer is when there are nine.”