Having a successful academic career as a woman in science: Q&A with Jennifer Sheridan

Image courtesy: photo.news.wisc.edu

Women still find it difficult to have a successful academic career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

I interviewed Jennifer Sheridan, the executive and research director of Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI), on how women can have a successful academic career in science and break through the glass ceiling.

How can women have a successful academic career in science?

They need to do what every other person needs to do to get hired as a professor–publish & get grants!  Of course, there are some additional hurdles that women might face compared to men during the hiring process (e.g., unconscious bias), but on the whole, if you have a good research record we are finding more and more equity in landing that first faculty job, at least here in the U.S.

One question that women here in the U.S. have increasingly begun to worry about is when to have their children.  Some women are opting to have them in graduate school, while at the other extreme women wait until after they have achieved tenure to have their kids.  Most of the advice I hear is that there is no good time to have your children, each stage of the scientific career has its benefits and challenges.  The key is to look for institutions that are supportive of women at all stages.  Before you choose a graduate school, postdoc, faculty position–find out what the policies and practices are at that institution around these family-formation issues.

How can women break through the science glass ceiling and be at the top of their career?

As in so many areas (law, medicine, politics, business)–women have the training, the years of experience, the skills, and the expertise to be leaders in the field (partners in the firm, department heads, elected officials, CEOs), but somehow are not filling those positions in proportion to their numbers in the pipeline.  Some people see this as a “glass ceiling”, but some researchers (Alice Eagly) prefer to characterize the problem as more of a “labyrinth.”  This is because it’s not one single thing that is keeping women from taking their place at the leadership table, but rather a multitude of smaller obstacles that get in their way.  Policies that work against women, especially in their family-formation years; biases (both conscious and unconscious) that tend to reward men more often than women for their achievements; negative stereotypes about women leaders that portray them as unlikeable even as they display the same leadership qualities that men do; lack of role models and mentors….there is a lot in the way.  Yet, at least in academia, there is an increasing awareness of these issues and the dedication of many universities to work on these issues.

What could be done to encourage more women to have a academic career in science?

Increasingly, we are coming to understand how early we have to start if we want to get more women into science & engineering.  Messages about what girls are good at and what jobs they should consider get implanted very early.  Messaging about what different occupations are like are also important.  In the U.S., for example, Engineering as a discipline is working hard to change the stereotypes about engineering as a male discipline that is for geeks who like to work alone with machines.  The National Academy of Engineering has a messaging campaign going on that is trying to transform Engineering into a “helping profession”, by emphasizing the ways Engineers solve big world problems (the “Grand Challenges”).  The idea is that this kind of messaging will appeal to a broader set of people (especially women), who will then consider engineering as a profession that might be a good fit for them and their talents.

Of course, we also need to work on the women who are farther along in the pipeline–those who are in high school and considering their college majors, or those undergraduates who are choosing a major and trying to stick with a course of study.  Mentoring, role models, attention to classroom climate, excellent (and unbiased) advising, attention from a faculty member, direct messages from faculty to stay in the major and continue on with graduate training–all of these things can be especially encouraging to women.

How would women having a academic career in science help in the sustainable development of the society?

Science & engineering have a crucial role to play in solving some of the “grand challenges” of our society.  If the people working on those problems come from only a narrow segment of society, we will not have the full range of ideas and experiences that can influence the solutions we come up with.  The solutions will be less-than-optimal because those providing the solutions are not diverse enough.  To find the best solutions to our pressing problems, we need to incorporate ALL of the talent the world has to offer.


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