Working Life

Lessons from a bridge generation

Science  25 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6280, pp. 1494
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6280.1494

I am part of a bridge generation: the middle of three generations of women working in the sciences. My mother, a cognitive scientist and tenured professor, received her Ph.D. in 1961. I earned my Ph.D. in 1985 and am now a tenured professor of neurobiology. My daughter is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in biology and looks forward to a career in scientific research. Looking across the three generations in my family, I see huge improvements in the experience of women in science, but obstacles still remain for my daughter's generation.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I believe there is reason to be optimistic [for] my daughter's generation.”

My mother dealt with explicit sexism throughout her career. As an undergraduate, her advisers suggested that she embark on a master's program that would be more flexible for beginning a family, rather than the Ph.D. program she had in mind. When she finished her Ph.D., her advisers assumed it marked the end of her scientific career and that she would stay home to care for her growing family. When she applied for her first grant, she deliberately eliminated all indications of her gender so that the reviewers would assume that her first name, Sydney, was a man's.

In spite of the obstacles, my mother felt her career demonstrated that women could succeed in academic science. Because of her influence, I thought sexism was no longer an impediment to success and so could be ignored, and I was confident that I would not need to choose between children and career. My mentors also provided strong encouragement and support, which strengthened my belief that sexism would not be an obstacle for me.

In retrospect, though, I recognize that my peers and I dealt with attitudes that would now be considered sexist, if not illegal. When a professor propositioned us, we assumed this was acceptable behavior, and all we could do was change classes and alert our friends. When our evaluations and reference letters stated we were “quiet” or we “asked for help frequently,” we assumed this indicated our deficiencies. Only later did we realize that such comments are disproportionately used for women, often to the detriment of their careers. These seemingly minor impediments discouraged many of the researchers in my cohort from continuing in science.

As my career progressed, I gradually became aware of the attitudes and policies pervading science that are discouraging to women. When I started as a tenure-track assistant professor with two young children, I chose to reduce my salary so that I could concentrate on developing my research program without conflicting administrative duties. Instead, my department chair expected me to do as much administrative work as my male peers, who had negotiated higher salaries and better titles. After being awarded a grant for early-stage investigators, I was dismayed to find that I, the lone woman recipient, was the only one not asked to speak at the foundation meeting. Each episode may be minor, but over time, such incidents accumulate and hinder career advancement.

I believe there is reason to be optimistic that scientists in my daughter's generation are less likely to encounter such situations. At a recent meeting, two younger women stated that they had never experienced any sexism. I am thrilled to hear this—and I hope it truly reflects an improved environment for women. I worry, however, that it is the same attitude I had early in my career, when gender issues seemed too minor for complaint.

My daughter knows that sexism in science exists and that bias is often unconscious. This awareness prepares her to confront sexist behaviors politely but firmly, confident that the behavior will change and will not impede her success. My hope for her and her generation of scientists is that continued awareness of bias will help push the scientific community to initiate reforms that prevent “minor” problems from accumulating and creating disparities.

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