Female professors speak about science careers

January 27, 2016 by Anna Ringuette, Contributing Writer

On Jan. 20, female scientists at the College spoke on a panel. Panel speakers, clockwise from left to right: Sarah Bolton, Jeannie Albrecht, Pheobe Cohen, Rebecca Taurog, Andrea Danyluk and Anne Skinner. Not pictured: Lee Park and Amy Gehring. Photo Courtesy of Panelists.

On Jan. 20, female scientists at the College spoke on a panel. Panel speakers, clockwise from left to right: Sarah Bolton, Jeannie Albrecht, Pheobe Cohen, Rebecca Taurog, Andrea Danyluk and Anne Skinner. Not pictured: Lee Park and Amy Gehring. Photo Courtesy of Panelists.

On Wednesday Jan. 20, the Chemistry Student Activities Committee (CSAC) hosted a Women in Science panel in Brooks-Rogers Auditorium. Eight faculty members from the chemis-try, computer science, geosciences and physics departments participated. Members of the panel shared their experiences and discussed the issues faced by female scientists today.

The discussion opened with an introduction from each panelist explaining why she chose to go into her field. Many women found that their interest in science started early. The responses they received from their parents and teachers varied from positive to discouraging. Anne Skinner, professor of chemistry, said, “I had a high school chemistry teacher who was a tremendous mentor … I’ve come to believe that middle school and high school is where interest in science is either developed or squelched.” The speakers noted that the differences in their individual experiences in early education corresponded with their generation: The senior faculty members found that they had a harder time finding encouragement and often faced overt discrimination during middle and high school.

While their specific experiences vary greatly, all eight panel members have faced discrimination in some form throughout their scientific careers. Skinner and Dean of the College Sarah Bolton discussed their experiences with open discrimination. The women remembered times when labs were covered with posters of women, or when they were asked in interviews about their plans to marry or have children. Other faculty members detailed more covert discrimination. Phoebe Cohen, professor of geosciences, said, “It’s not one specific event… explicit bias is relatively rare these days but unconscious bias is common.” 

The panel members also explained that mentors are more likely to help male students in graduate or post-doctorate  programs because the mentors themselves are often male. “Male mentors of mine would advocate for their male mentees because they saw themselves in the young men,” Cohen said. “That’s a much more challenging situation to even notice.”

Rebecca Taurog, professor of chemistry, concurred. “In my experiences it has been about the covert… these subtle differences,” she said. The panel agreed that subtle discrimination like Cohen’s example is the most common that women pursuing a scientific career today face. Bolton urged women considering graduate programs in the sciences to look into larger programs. “Here we tend to think about smallness as the thing that is most nurturing,” she said. However, that isn’t always the case for graduate programs. She found that in her larger graduate program, “there were some productive conversations that were able to happen in coalition … because there were a lot of us, not in terms of percentage, but in terms of population.”

The conversation then turned to the importance of mentors and how to address situations in which a mentor may treat female mentees different than male mentees. Andrea Danyluk, professor of computer science, said that finding an advisor with whom you can work well is as important as taking interest in what his or her lab is researching. “One thing that is important to keep in mind is that so many of us like so many different things, and a relationship with an advisor is such an important thing,” she said. Both Lee Park, professor of chemistry, and Danyluk shared stories about leaving research groups because of the poor treatment of women. Cohen advised the women in the audience, saying, “there are situations where you need to advocate for yourself.” The panel also cautioned the women to do so respectfully. “You do have to remember that this is the person that is going to be writing letters of recommendation for you,” Skinner said. “You have to be careful how you present yourself to them.” The entire panel emphasized the significance of having a good relationship with an advisor as well as maintaining healthy relationships with a group of friends.

The panelists’ responses varied greatly in a later discussion about the challenges of the job market for women in STEM fields. Jeannie Albrecht, professor of computer science, started the conversation optimistically. “If you are qualified and capable and strong in your field, they will be knocking down the doors to get you,” she said. She advised women to not be afraid to move on from a position if it is not working out and to ask as many questions as possible to determine if a lab is the right fit.

Skinner and Cohen both named imposter syndrome, in which people feel they are frauds when they achieve success, as a challenge uniquely affecting women in the sciences. “You’re not here because you’re lucky; you’re here because you’re bright, smart, competent people,” Skinner said.

The women then discussed how to balance the need to address an uncomfortable situation with a mentor with the need to get letters of recommendation from the mentor. “You want to choose thoughtfully … There are situations in which you’ll want to step forward,” Bolton said. However, she added, “If you choose not to fight certain battles, that’s okay, you’re not obligated. You have to forgive yourself.” The panel also addressed their own decisions to work in academia versus industry. Many of the women cited the opportunity to teach as well as the greater autonomy in research while working in academia.

While the discussion focused on how to address problems facing women in the sciences, the panel emphasized that the audience should not be discouraged. “If women aren’t allowed to de-velop fully within the field,” Skinner said, “it is science that is going to suffer.”

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