The evening of December 6, the Harvard branch of Scientistas hosted a panel on female academics in the sciences. Undergraduate scientists braved miserable weather to listen to Professors Hopi Hoekstra, Pamela Silver, Emily Balskus, and Dr. Patricia Musolino speak about their experiences as women pursuing degrees and careers in their respective fields. Specialists in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Biochemistry and Systems Biology, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and Pediatric Neurology, the four women described their experiences in the sciences, responding to questions posed by moderator and Senior neurobiology concentrator Catherine Schmalkuche. In telling their stories and sharing opinions, they offered insights and advice invaluable to other women who hope to one day pursue their own careers in science.
On the imbalance between the number of women and men in their various departments, each professor expressed a similar sentiment; that recently, the imbalance has become less pronounced than ever before, but that we still have a long way to go before achieving real equality. When questioned about the severity of the imbalance especially in leadership positions within the sciences, Professor Silver specifically remarked, “transition to leadership roles is next to impossible,” and implied that in her own experiences, in order to be offered any kind of higher-level position, a woman would have to threaten to leave her department. She did, however, agree with her colleagues that recent changes are designed to expand the number of prominent women scientists at the heads of their fields. Addressing her audience of undergraduate women and aspiring scientists, she announced, “Change falls on you.”
When asked about psychological findings related to the different mentalities and perceptions of women in scientific fields, all four professors were quick to offer their opinions on the disparities between the styles and thought-processes of the different genders within male-dominated workplaces. Interestingly, each mentioned that women tend to feel guiltier and put more pressure on themselves to succeed than men. Professor Silver described how, when she received her first major position as an academic, she was “so grateful to get anything,” that she didn’t necessarily consider if it might be best for her. She mentioned that she works with female graduate students now who feel guilty when prominent departments reach out to them in part because they are women. She advised her audience, just as she advised her grad students, to use whatever they might have access to, and when offered a great opportunity, to just take it, and certainly not to feel bad about its motivation. Dr. Musolino explained that she thought it was a mistake for women to contend with the men in their fields by adopting their mentalities, which she characterized as often intensely competitive. She does, however, believe that women can successfully negotiate for their own improvement by imitating brokering tactics often implemented by men. She believes that men have a high sense of justice; and that just as men believe that they deserve to be rewarded for their own hard work, so too should their female colleagues.
Professor Balskus observed that “women don’t ask” – about potential advisors, about possible future positions, or about how to be rewarded for doing great work in their field. She stresses the necessity that women familiarize themselves with prospective positions, awards, and opportunities in their fields in order to better advocate for themselves. Professor Hoekstra expanded upon her idea by discussing awards; she mentioned that the vast majority of accolades in the sciences are presented more often to men than to women, and she suspected that this was in part because women were less inclined to ask their superiors and mentors for nominations. She, too, stressed that in order to be successful, women must be comfortable speaking up for themselves.
In discussing the importance of mentors in the development of thriving careers, the panelists described how they themselves achieved success. Professor Hoekstra emphasized that it’s ideal to find a mentor who not only conveys important information about one’s department and field, but who will also passionately advocate for his or her mentee. She also expressed her belief that mentor/mentee relationships strengthen the sense of community among scientists, and can be majorly advantageous to aspiring students and researchers. Doctor Musolino expressed her belief in the importance of learning from other women and also in the importance of developing multiple mentoring relationships. She described that in her own experience, it was easy to find people who would talk to her, but harder to find those who would take responsibility for the advancement of her career. She thus believed it invaluable to build a support group of mentors who “can keep opening doors” within one’s field. Professor Silver emphasized the individuality of the scientific process, reflecting that as scientists, “we dream, we think about things on our own.” When she did need advice or inspiration, she found that it was often more helpful to confide in peers than in superiors about her research and ideas. And while Professor Balskus agreed that it’s essential to “listen to [one’s] own scientific voice,” it’s also possible to find fantastic mentors in interesting and unexpected places.
The panel concluded by discussing the complicated contemporary issue regarding the ability of women to “have it all” – to achieve success and happiness in both the personal and professional realms of their lives. Professor Musolino alluded to the idea that women often develop a plan that conforms to an expected school-work-family trajectory. She described how her own plan was to attend and graduate from medical school and have four kids before she turned thirty; this, she said, proved extremely unrealistic. She mentioned that when she felt her own professional aspirations shifting to accommodate her family-oriented intentions, she decided to alter her plan, to focus on her work, and not to modify her professional ambitions because of the pressure she felt about her personal ones. Professor Hoekstra expressed her own supporting opinion that professional success is not determined by specific, constrictive personal-life timing. She said that life was hard to plan for, and that women shouldn’t worry about not conforming to typical personal-life timelines, that they should start building families only when they were ready to. Professor Silver expressed her belief that with shifting expectations of and the development of better support systems for working women with families, it’s slowly becoming easier and easier for women to thrive in both their personal and professional lives.
Doctor Musolino, at the close of the panel’s discussion, told her audience, “Don’t try to be ordinary when you’re not.” Her sentiment embodies what the four extraordinary women epitomize in their own lives; their advice, rooted in their own remarkable experiences and insights, will certainly prove indispensible to aspiring scientists striving to follow their example.