It was 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and I was sitting in the cafeteria of a local high school, ruing that extra glass of wine I had drunk at dinner the night before. Around me sat other bleary-eyed scientists sipping burnt coffee and awaiting our instructions from the organizers of a regional science fair.
More than 600 high-school students shuffled nervously before their projects anticipating the critique of those of us who had been called in as "expert" judges. Among 180 or so judges, I counted about six women, including me, and one person of color; the rest were middle-aged white men. The science-fair organizers on the dais were all high-school teachers and all women.
Meanwhile, the student exhibitors were a veritable United Nations and at least half of them were female. By the end of that day, I left the fair with some unsettling questions about the subtext of the event.
Did the students notice that they, for the most part, looked nothing like the judges? Did the fair introduce in students a subconscious notion that science expertise and professional careers in science were the purview of men? Did the female and minority students at the fair begin to wonder if they would feel out of place as scientists?
And does any of that help explain why I continue to have so few female or minority colleagues at my university?
The distribution of race and gender among the science-fair judges was skewed toward white males far more than it is even in academic science. There is a range of possible explanations for that, from happenstance to internal bias of the organizers themselves. Regardless, my experience at the fair highlights a topic that comes up with some frequency: the importance of role models and mentors for women in science.
I am an assistant professor at a midlevel research university and one of the X-Gals, an informal group of nine female biologists who began meeting in 2000 as graduate students and have supported one another ever since. Like my fellow X-Gal Helen Atwood, I am at the beginning of my career in academic science and have followed the traditional path modeled in graduate school: Ph.D., postdoc, tenure-track job.
Some major events that could have altered my progression through that gantlet have not occurred: My partner has a career that travels easily between major cities, and we don't have children.
Only recently have I come to appreciate the link between promoting diversity on a university's faculty and increasing scientific innovation at the national level. That link, in my mind, is the most logical argument for making careers in academic science more women-friendly.
You could argue that we X-Gals contradict ourselves by stressing the importance of female role models before and during graduate school: After all, we had few such role models or mentors ourselves, but we turned out to be scientists anyway. I would counter that we are a self-directed group of people who found one another for support. What happens to similarly talented female and minority students who never find such a support network?
In my current position, as well as when I travel for my work, I am routinely confronted by the predominance of men within the profession, particularly in positions of power or leadership, such as full professors, symposium organizers, or provosts. I am surprised I didn't understand the implications of that when I was an undergraduate or even a graduate student. But now I do.
For instance, women-friendly policies at universities, such as tenure-clock delays during the child-bearing years, do not exist at the majority of American institutions. According to a 2006 report by Gilia C. Smith and Jean A. Waltman, while 86 percent of research universities offer policies to stop the tenure clock, only about 43 percent of colleges and universities across the spectrum of higher education have adopted such policies. I attribute that deficit to neglect on the part of the mostly male leadership of those campuses, and I believe it affects my female students as much as my colleagues.
My new tenure-track job has made me passionate about the role those of us in academe play in influencing the career trajectories of young people in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. If we want to continue American leadership in those fields at the international level, our universities need to attract the brightest students to careers in science and technology, and retain them.
And we're not doing that. In particular, we are not doing a very good job at getting a cross-section of the nation's young brainpower into science careers (see the National Science Foundation's 2004 report, "Broadening Participation in Science and Engineering Faculty").
Dissenters argue that women and minority students choose not to pursue careers in science and technology, rather than being excluded from them. But I would argue, based on personal experience and observation, that the culture of educational institutions conveys many messages about who is welcome in the scientific community, and who is not.
Academe does not model the inclusive meritocratic ideal that it champions. Many students do not see professors who look like them at the front of the classroom. Making academe a more humane workplace would attract, and retain, talented teacher-scientists from diverse backgrounds.
For instance, burgeoning data suggest that female Ph.D.'s either opt out of the professoriate, or are excluded from it, because their biological clocks conflict with the arbitrary and inflexible timetable of the tenure process. Changing that rigid tenure process to attract a more diverse group of faculty members will take flexibility and creative thinking on the part of the people in positions of power at the university or government level. It might also take some money. However, I have yet to see anyone make a good case for how institutions are damaged when they allow faculty members to temporarily stop the tenure-clock to care for their infants or for family members with health emergencies.
Academe is far from perfect, but I am optimistic that it is moving in the right direction. In the meantime, there are some things I can do myself to help keep the door open for all young scientists. First, I can learn to be an effective mentor. I admit that role doesn't come naturally to me. But I plan to do my best and read up on the subject. MentorNet, an online network that focuses on increasing diversity in science and engineering, has a list of resources for both mentors and their students.
In addition, I can use what little time I have for community-service work to actively support science programs for girls and other under-represented groups. And I can construct research-grant budgets to include meaningful mentoring activities, where appropriate. Two of the largest federal agencies that support biological research, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, have dedicated evaluation criteria or grant programs that revolve around increasing diversity within science. After being on grant panels, I now understand that the two agencies take those efforts very seriously and that successful applicants must, as well.
Finally, I can focus on effecting institutional change. The fact that I have found male peers who share my dissatisfaction with the way that the tenure process interferes with having a reasonably balanced family life tells me that "the other side" recognizes the need for institutional change, too.