The “Inspiring Women Scientists” event on Wednesday March 21 was, in a word, inspiring. The event was hosted by the CUNY Office of Research and the Feminist Press. Bringing together women scientists across disciplines and from several career paths, the event celebrated the inroads that women have made into scientific careers while recognizing the barriers and difficulties that still exist. I think that many women, myself included, are likely to disregard the existence of gender barriers in the workplace. However, as Claudia Dreifus, science writer for the New York Times and author of Higher Education? stated:
“Women don’t have the same glass ceiling as before, but it is there, and women may be more surprised when they reach it.”
Work-life balance was a persistent theme during the day, which isn’t surprising since motherhood and family life are purportedly amongst the main reasons why women leave scientific research. However, even though the panels consisted of several women scientists doing research in academia, it was very refreshing to see other types of careers represented. It is well known that women leave academic science in disproportionate numbers to their male colleagues. Even in areas in which women outnumber men at the graduate level, such as biology, women are grossly underrepresented at higher levels in the academic track. I have to admit that I am one of those statistics, one of the women scientists who fell out of the “leaky pipeline”. However, just because I’m not at the bench, doesn’t mean I’m not a scientist. I find it hard to believe that anyone who spends over ten years of their life on science (college + grad school) can ever stop being a scientist. A friend of mine recently coined the term “support scientist” to describe all the science writers, policy makers, educators, and patent attorneys who are very much necessary for the advancement of science but who aren’t in the lab making the discoveries.
There were two career panels, one with women scientists in academia and one with women in other science careers, including industry, education, and policy. (For interviews and bios of the panelists, check out Under the Microscope). I found the contrast between the two panels quite interesting. One of the main themes during the academia panel was focus and determination. According to Kelle Cruz, Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Hunter College:
“I knew what I wanted to do early on, and I was willing to jump over the necessary hurdles as long as they would get me to where I wanted to be as a scientist.”
In contrast, one of the major themes of the alternative careers panel was flexibility. According to Sara Basson of IBM
[My career path was a] “circuitous path that in hindsight seems strategic.”
While a good mix of focus and flexibility is important in any career path, I wonder if focus and determination are more important when pursuing the academic track since the path is more clearly laid out for you.
So, what were some other inspiring tidbits from the day?
- Have objective metrics by which to measure your progress so that you don’t fall prey to stereotypes and naysayers
- Commit yourself to getting the education you need to get to where you want to be
- Develop a toolkit of skills and interests that you can draw upon
- Be courageous, take risks, and get out of your comfort zone
- Have a strong sense of who you are and want you want out of a career and out of life
- Network, network, network
- Find a mentor, but also be a mentor. There is always someone younger than you
- Perhaps most importantly, be kind to yourself and to others who may be traveling a similar path as you