The following story is a fictionalized account of a focus group discussion by four early-career women life scientists. It is based on common responses in interviews and surveys while conducting research to develop this website.
Monique Aster, PhD: Genetics researcher with 5 years of experience working at Regenuvate, a cell and gene therapy start-up.
Bonita Morales, PhD: An expert in non-transgenic gene editing, she is starting a business using a disease-resistant grapevine cultivar that she developed.
Sue Grabowski: Finishing a PhD in Microbiology and interested in fermentation science. Her degree is taking longer than she anticipated.
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.
Moderator: Thank you for participating in this discussion of challenges women face in the life sciences. With over half of life sciences graduate students being women, do you think that women are being represented at a similar rate to 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 get 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! They 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 balance away from just male-bonding.
True! I like those ideas.
Moderator: Why don’t you complain about it and demand change?
You worry that if you bring up the exclusion of women, you will be told it’s that they just don’t like you as an individual. Or if you complain about bias against women’s research, they will tell you that it’s just that you are not very good as a scientist.
Oh that’s so true. That’s what I worry about. 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: Anything else you would like to say on challenges women face in the life sciences?
We are learning that 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 happen to enjoy fashion, and I want to wear what 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 the way you support each other and the creative ideas you have for navigating bias. I hope you continue to support each other because there are fewer women at each level as your career progresses in the life sciences, whether in academia or industry.
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