“Leaning In” — Scientists’ Thoughts on Gender Equity

Last week, we scientists from the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, who usually use our weekly video conference calls to discuss science, spent time discussing the recently published book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. This is not standard reading for chemists; in fact, it’s written for business people, but I was inspired to read it because I am often asked by female graduate students about how I manage work/life balance issues. (I am asked this question because I’m a woman with a big research group and two small kids.) I always wish I had a simple answer to this question but I think I just have good instincts and a good support system – I thought this book might offer clear advice that I could share. While women earn nearly half the undergraduate degrees in chemistry and more than a third of doctoral degrees in chemistry, they make up a much smaller portion of research faculty (like me). These statistics are even worse when you consider women of color. This lack of diversity is a concern for many reasons. First, if you have a lack of diversity in positions of leadership, it means that aspiring scientists may not find role models that suit them – they may assume that academic science is not for them. Second, a lack of diversity in the scientists that make up the field means a lack of diversity in ideas or approaches to doing science. In a field that thrives on creativity, this is a real loss.

Haynes Group & Family
This is me with my research group and with my family.

So I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book and watched her TED talk . Her message really resonated with me, and I found myself taking notes on the back of airsickness bags or random post-its as I flew to one university or another. I sent a few starting questions to the Center scientists and suggested they read the book or watch the TED talk in advance of our discussion.

We started out discussing gender differences relevant to leadership and ambition, specifically the fact that women more often suffer from “imposter syndrome” (the sense that you don’t really belong where you are and that someone is bound to figure that out sooner or later). By this point in my career, I’m well established, and it’s easy for me to admit that I still struggle with “impostor syndrome.” I think it surprised some of the students that faculty feel this way because they assumed that once you have a PhD that all your worries about whether or not you’re smart enough must go away. I’ve been lucky and have had many people in my professional life that believed I could do things when I did not believe I could. They’ve been right much more often than I have, and I now have a personal motto to “prove them right.” I was happy to share this with the students, and all the faculty chimed in to say that we now want to be those supporters and advocates for this generation of scientists, men and women alike. In the book, Sandberg encourages women (everyone really) to pursue “stretch” opportunities, and the research center we’re a part of is a perfect place to do just that. The groups involved in this science have diverse expertise (at least within the field of chemistry) and get the opportunity to visit various labs, interact with all the faculty investigators, communicate with the public, and take leadership roles.

Another point in Sandberg’s book that hit me hard was her advice to “not leave before you leave;” briefly, she’s advising her readers not to avoid being ambitious because someday they expect to scale back their effort to have a family. I pursued my professional goals doggedly even as I was approaching child bearing years, and it means that I had meaningful, well-compensated work to return to after having babies. I thought this would be a significant point of discussion within the group but it wasn’t really, perhaps because all the graduate students in the Center are still approaching those child-bearing years. One male graduate student commented that it was useful to hear this advice because it made him feel that all the time he was investing in his graduate research would pay off as he moves forward and considers family balance issues in the future.

I want to be careful here not to make it sound like the child bearing has to occur at a particular time. I waited until I was a faculty member but I know women chemists who have had children as graduate students and postdocs. I don’t think any time is particularly easy, but if you’re motivated both to be a professional scientist and a parent, it’s definitely possible. The balance is much easier if you have a supportive partner and a supportive workplace, one that values diversity enough to accommodate short term needs for long term gain.

All that said, I’m also sensitive to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Having a family is a personal choice and one has to be prepared to make some sacrifices as you find balance. Will you travel as much as your childless colleagues? Will you stay up all night to finish a grant? Will you be promoted as fast? For most aspiring academics, those that push hard and “don’t leave before they leave,” it is not easy to accept doing less than your very best on everything, but, at least in my case, that was part of the equation. The good news is that my “good enough” is still pretty good, and I am sure that I will more than pay my colleagues and department back over the length of my career.

A career in academic science isn’t for everyone, but we should do everything we can not to have people count themselves out just because they want more than science in their lives. All of the Center members have children, hobbies, and/or non-science passions, and I think it makes us better scientists, teachers, and mentors. It was enlightening to talk about these dualities and specifically, how to make sure we support groups that are currently underrepresented in our field to see that their broad interests and lifestyles are possible and, in fact, needed in academic science.

References and further reading
Women Are Earning Greater Share of STEM Degrees, but Doctorates Remain Gender-Skewed