• Wed, Jun 8 2011

What Female Scientists Have To Say About Being A Woman In That World

Four of the top female scientists were invited to a 30-minute round-table discussion by The New York Times. In town for the World Science Festival, the women discussed their “lives as scientists, the joys and struggles of research, and the specific challenges women in science face.”

Elena Aprile, Joy Hirsch, Mary-Claire King and Tal Rabin were the four scientists in attendance. Dr. Aprile is a professor of physics at Columbia; Dr. Hirsh is a professor of neuroscience at Columbia, as well. Dr. King is a professor of medical genetics at University of Washington; and Dr. Rabin is a cryptography researcher at IBM.

We’ve compiled some of our favorite tips of advice from The New York Times transcript.

On working in a predominately male field:

“You have to do what the guys do, and it does not matter what it takes. It is important to be out there, and so it comes with the territory. You have to find a way around to solve the practical problems. You have to,” said Elena Aprile

On helping out younger female scientists:

“But women can help each other out… because we know this about our younger women colleagues. We can introduce them to our colleagues. We can say: ‘Diane has a fabulous result. She needs to tell you what it is, and don’t move until she has told you’,” advised Dr. King.

On balancing family and work:

“I think the choke point is going from a postdoc to an assistant professorship to a tenure-track position. In my experience the largest remaining obstacle is how to integrate family,” said Dr. King. “At institutions where there is child care on site, where it is subsidized, where there are enough places for assistant professors to have their children, women do well. And at institutions where it is assumed that you will make your own arrangements, women do less well. There is good data on this. We need institutional commitment.”

“It is by example that young women see that you can be both a successful scientist, the best, but also the best mother and the lover, and the wife. You can do everything, so I think you need to have more examples of those,” continued Dr. Aprile

On diversity being a necessary component:

“I think it is important to look at this from the point of view of the field of science. It is very important that diversity be represented in the field of science. And so from the point of view of the science — not our daughters — then I think it is necessary to have women and a woman’s point of view. Her ability to collaborate, her ability to think differently, is important for the trajectory of the field. But I really agree with you, Elena. You have to be tough. You have to be made of steel,” said Hirsch.

So yes, ladies, you can have it all. You can have the family and the career in the boys’ club. You can be at the top of your game, and go toe-to-toe with the men in your field, but it’s going to take some work. It’s going to take growing thick skin, putting your goals first and being “made of steel.” Sometimes it’s best to put the soft feminine demeanor on the back burner if you want to reach the top. Weakness never got anyone anywhere.

You can reach this post's author, Amanda Chatel, on twitter.
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