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“Don’t weigh the guilt”: 4 lessons from women at the forefront of STEM

Key takeways from the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) Annual Summit in San Francisco

Elsevier was a Patron Sponsor of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) 2018 Annual Summit in San Francisco’s Bently Reserve. (Photo by Chrysanne Lowe)
Elsevier was a Patron Sponsor of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) 2018 Annual Summit in San Francisco’s Bently Reserve. (Photo by Chrysanne Lowe)

How can we improve diversity, inclusion and equality in academia and industry to foster innovation for the benefit of humanity?

Is there a case for conscious bias when it comes to representation in science?

And on a personal level, how do women in science navigate the social pressures associated with a career?

On April 25th, 200 distinguished women and men gathered to examine the theme of Innovation and Inclusion: Women at the forefront of STEMat the AWIS Annual Summit. In the imposing hall of the Bently Reserve in San Francisco, they examined these ideas and more. Here are my takeaways from these women leaders in STEM, who shared shared their thoughts on the challenges that exist beyond the process of scientific achievement.

1. A case for conscious bias

Elsevier author Pamela McCauley, PhD, a professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at the University of Central Florida, was moderator of the panel "Fix the Women or Fix the System?" (Photo by Chrysanne Lowe)

Through case studies, best practices and discussion  over the course of the day, two trains of thought emerged for me. First, a strong case to recognize unconscious bias. Dr. Rachel Haurwitz, President and CEO of Caribou Biosciences, talked about masking names from resumes to avoid unconscious gender bias. Karene Richards, CEO of the Karene Group LLC, shared her story of not being hired for a position she was highly qualified for – and receiving well-intentioned advice by one interviewer who suggested she straighten her hair and try again in six months.

While all the panelists recognized the dangers of unconscious bias, another train of thought gained significant momentum by the end of the evening: a case for conscious bias in favor of women. I should clarify that no one actually used the words “conscious bias,” but venture capitalist Alex Jung, Managing Director of the EY-Parthenon practice of Ernst & Young, emphasized the need to “hire women, pay it forward,” saying women have an obligation to encourage, support and lift other women.

Indeed, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s infamous words were cited several times over the course of the event: “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”

Jung shared her 2018 resolution of “No more Manels,” referring to all-male panels. She rejects being the sole woman sought to speak on panels, and when she turns down a speaking engagement, she now offers a list of qualified women who can speak in her stead.

Dr. Pamela McCauley, a Professor in the of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at the University of Central Florida and author of Transforming your STEM Career Through Leadership and Innovation (Elsevier, 2013), reinforced the call for action: “We need to be unapologetic about supporting women in our organizations.” (Read her article “8 myths of leadership” in Elsevier Connect.)

2. Data and measurement are the foundation for systemic change

Combining information and analytics, Elsevier’s report provides an evidence-based view of Gender in the Global Research Landscape. (Photo by Chrysanne Lowe)

Dr. Holly Falk-Krzesinski, a co-author of the report, shares findings. (Photo by Chrysanne Lowe)Several speakers cited studies that demonstrate how diverse organizations are more successful in innovation and business outcomes, yet current trends continue to demonstrate the slow pace of women achieving leadership roles and parity compared to men.

Dr. Holly Falk-Krzesinski, Vice President of Research Intelligence at Elsevier, shared rich insights derived from Elsevier’s examination of gender representation in research data, suggesting inequities in opportunity for women in science. Throughout the afternoon, panelists reinforced the importance of data and measurement to support systemic change. (See “3 facts about gender equality in science and health.”)

3. Change management through policy isn’t easy, but it works

Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, PhD, receives AWIS Pinnicle Award. (Photo by Chrysanne Lowe)

Speakers on the panel “Fix the women or fix the system?” emphasized that the systems must be addressed. Women do not need to be fixed, they said; rather, policy and legislative approaches can make the difference in promoting diversity and parity, even though these policies may be difficult to implement.

The call for policy change was a key theme in the opening addresses. Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann, a ceiling-breaking figure who served as Chancellor of the University of California San Francisco and President of Genentech before taking on her current role as CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, made the call for leadership: “Sometimes, you have to set policy before you know how you’re going to do it.”

This was punctuated by the Stanford University President Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who remarked: “We recruit for athletes – why don’t we recruit for diversity?”

4. Put aside “The Guilt” and believe in your contribution

This AWIS event crystalized challenges that so many institutions are currently facing – from the most esteemed universities to corporations like my own. In contrast to the confident speakers on the podium, however, I encountered a different perspective from the audience. During the networking sessions, I spoke separately with two impressive and successful women, each in mid-career.  Over the course of our conversations, both revealed their internal conflict about the impact of their work on their young children, on their marriages and relationships, and on their work. “It’s the guilt!” one exclaimed to me.

Although we’d only just met and I was a stranger, I understood this emotion all too well. It’s easy to feel that you’re not spending enough time with your family and that you’re not staying late enough at the office. I’ve lived through The Guilt throughout my working life. But looking at these promising women and reflecting on the luminaries in the room – like Dr. Desmond-Hellman, whose development of cancer-fighting drugs provide hope to millions today – it seems unthinkable to not encourage women to continue to strive for whatever it is that they are trying to do.

And I think of my now college-aged daughters and what I would say to them:

Don’t weigh guilt on this scale. Put it aside. Instead, consider your unique contribution to whatever it is that you are trying to accomplish. You bring a singular perspective that no one else can. If your work is one of the platforms through which you fulfil your unique calling or purpose, put that on the scale instead of guilt, and then find the balance. It’s still going to be a tough one to level, but at least both weights are true and worthy.

Quick question for you

Which terms do you most associate with Elsevier? (check all that apply)

Data and analytics
Research platforms
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Decision support tools
Publishing
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