The following story is a fictional account of a focus group discussion by four early-career women life scientists. We based it on the more common responses real-life women scientists gave during interviews and surveys.
Bonita Morales, PhD:
An expert in non-transgenic gene editing. Just two years after finishing a postdoc, she is creating a startup business using a disease-resistant grapevine cultivar that she developed.
Monique Aster, PhD:
Genetics researcher with five years of experience working at Regenuvate, a cell and gene therapy startup.
Sarah Johnson, PhD:
A protein scientist who engineers proteins and peptibodies at a large biotech firm. She would like to get more involved in using them in clinical applications.
Graduate student who is finishing up a PhD in microbiology and is interested in fermentation science. She is frustrated that it looks like getting her degree will take longer than she anticipated.
Moderator: Thank you for participating in this discussion about the challenges women face in the life sciences. With over half of life science graduate students being women, do you think women are included as often as men in professional activities, such as being on expert panels in professional societies?
Oh, you mean a “manel.” [Everyone laughs.] It has improved some—we are included in professional activities more often now, but we still have a way to go. We are often left out of informal networking.
That happened to me. My faculty advisor and other grad students who were all male were going to a bar together. I went once, but career advice was mixed with male bonding, and I felt out of place. Now, I just ask one of the guys to fill me in on what I miss and make a point to schedule office time with the advisor, bringing him ideas and asking for career advice.
That’s good. Another idea is to bring another female graduate student with you to the bar. That would probably shift the focus away from only male-bonding.
True. I like those ideas.
Moderator: Why don’t you complain about it and demand change?
I worry that if I bring up the exclusion of women, I’ll be told it’s that they don’t like me as an individual and not because I am a woman. Or if I complain about bias against women’s research, they’ll tell me I am not a very good scientist.
That’s what I worry about, too! Another thing that bothers me is that faculty steer female graduate students toward careers in academia to increase the percentage of women faculty. So they don’t give us the mentoring we need to succeed in industry.
Or they encourage us to join existing corporations instead of starting our own businesses. [The other women nod vigorously and agree this has been their experience too.]
They assume we cannot overcome the barriers women face as entrepreneurs. One reason I’m starting my own business is to avoid the subtle bias against women in academics and industry. Sure, there is bias in entrepreneurship, too—for example, in obtaining funding. But running my own business will allow me to create a less biased team.
Moderator: Is there anything else you would like to say about the challenges women face in the life sciences?
We need to support each other. For example, women often get no response in meetings when they voice an idea or talk about their work, despite comparable scientific merit. We need to speak up and offer support for each others’ ideas and work.
Yes! And we want to be taken seriously, but we don’t want to have to mute our femininity. For example, I enjoy fashion and want to wear whatever I want without it affecting whether my ideas get heard. Women can be themselves and be excellent scientists.
This has been a great discussion. I like how you support each other and the creative ideas you have for navigating bias. I hope you continue to support each other to help decrease the rate at which women drop out as their careers progress in the life sciences.