Promoting STEM Women: How Scientific Societies Can Help

Promoting STEM Women: How Scientific Societies Can Help

We spoke with Professors Rajini Rao and Gabriela Popescu who are outgoing and incoming chairs, respectively, of the Committee on Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW) in the Biophysical Society

1. Gabriela, the Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women is about 40 years old.  Can you briefly tell us about the history of CPOW and its significance for the Biophysical Society at the time?

GP: When the Biophysical Society was founded around the middle of the last century, following WWII, very few of the ~500 attendees were women and none were in leadership positions. This changed in the early seventies when Margaret Oakley Dayhoff, a pioneer in bioinformatics, became Secretary for the Society. Under her leadership, the CPOW was chartered for “increasing recognition and opportunities for women biophysicists”. Shortly after, the Society elected its first woman President. The timing was not a coincidence! Since then CPOW has worked to elevate many women scientists to leadership positions and supported the career development of both men and women biophysicists. The Biophysical Society currently serves over 9000 diverse professional scientists drawn from academia, industry and government agencies world wide.

2. Rajini, you chaired this committee for nearly a decade. Tell us how you got involved, and why?

RR: While serving as an elected member on the Biophysical Society council, I couldn’t help but notice the poor representation of women scientists in society awards. When I subsequently met the chair of the Awards committee and looked at the underlying numbers, I realized that the problem was that few women applied, even when the award was for women only!  So I joined the CPOW committee where we identified and directly lobbied high quality candidates for awards. Women who self-promote their careers are perceived as being “pushy” and may be unfairly penalized. By mediating on their behalf, we removed this impediment. As a result of our efforts, the number of women receiving awards has increased, and we also have more women serving on the Awards committee.

Four women sit on a panel. Quote reads: women who self-promote their careers are

Follow up question: Women typically hesitate to put their names forward for high profile or competitive positions. Have you noticed this in other aspects of career development and what is the solution?

RR: Yes, this is a common problem and speaks to the underlying issue of confidence and fear of pushback that women tend to have. Many highly qualified women hesitate to put their names up for recognition. They want to wait a year or two, so their CV’s get “stronger” by say, another high profile paper. Also, paradoxically, some high profile women are repeatedly asked to serve in leadership positions and become over-taxed and over-extended.

3. Gabriela, can you tell us some of the ways in which CPOW provides professional advancement guidance for scientists?

GP: In addition to the advocacy and lobbying efforts Rajini already mentioned, it has become a tradition for CPOW to organize and sponsor career development events at each BPS annual meeting. Among these, a Postdoc to Faculty Q & A has been popular for many years; a discussion on topical career issues led by a panel of invited experts is similarly well attended. More recently we initiated a mixer as a networking venue for mid-career biophysicists. The CPOW also oversees a competition for Travel Awards for postdoc and mid-career women scientists.  

Follow up question: Have there been any challenges in providing advice to women scientists?

GP: Indeed some women disapprove of gender-specific recognition or awards and consider them of low value. Even if we cannot reach every person, generally increasing the visibility of women biophysicists helps to attenuate bias and underrepresentation. Hopefully with the right institutional support and change in culture the new generation of women biophysicists will not need gender-specific advice, but rather they will consider it natural to apply for new responsibilities, to run for office, and to volunteer talks!  

4. Young scientists are particularly in need of career advice. What are some ways in which professional societies can assist them?

GP: Perhaps most important is to facilitate their participation in scientific meetings. In the current apprenticeship model of research training, interacting broadly with one’s peers plays an essential part. A strong connection with one’s field of research and direct interactions with admired scientists are irreplaceable sources of inspiration, motivation, and determination. I have already mentioned that CPOW offers Travel awards, which help defray some of the expenses of attending a scientific conference. Once at the conference, junior attendees have ample opportunities for networking with peers, with experienced scientists, and also with employers, journal editors, and staff from funding agencies.   

RR: Also, there are separate committees within professional societies such as the Biophysical Society that specifically cater to early career scientists (graduate students and postdoctoral fellows), and to underrepresented minorities. The role of these committees is to organize workshops and panel discussions that offer career planning advice, tips on how to get published, do’s and don’ts of grant writing, polishing up the CV, etc. We also have onsite job recruitment service for postdocs during our national conference.

5. There are data documenting how women are often overlooked as speakers at conferences. Not only does this lack of diversity hurt science, by disenfranchising a population, but it also further discourages young female scientists who see a conspicuous lack of role models.  Rajini, what can professional societies and committees such as CPOW do to address this?

RR: First, we need to elect more women as program chairs and organizers. Studies have shown that speaker list is more diverse when women chair/co-chair conferences.  Any professional society that is sponsoring a conference should review the speaker list and send it back to the program committee if diversity is lacking. When such oversight is missing, we end up with YAMMM (Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting) as dubbed by Prof. Jonathan Eisen. Little things matter: at the Biophysical Society we used to guess gender from speaker names, now we just  ask that women speakers and underrepresented minorities be clearly identified in the proposed program! Diverse programs attract more financial support too. Funding organizations require appropriate representation of gender when conference funds are sought. Conference grant applications can be turned down if there is a lack of effort to ensure diversity.

People A conference room

Follow up question: do you encounter pushback?

RR: Yes, we have people say that the primary criterion for a speaker should be quality. To that, we say we agree 100% and we provide names of high quality women speakers. Also, some evolutionary psychologists have publicized the opinion that gender imbalance in STEM is due to inherent biological differences between men and women. At a conference, while discussing the shortage of women speakers, my male colleagues opined that young women drop out of science because of their natural desire to raise a family. We’ve debunked that in our Nature Soapbox article.

6. Gabriela, what are some barriers to success that women scientists still face and how do you see professional societies as helping?

GP: In my opinion we reached a point where open and deliberate discrimination is increasingly rare; and it is gratifying to see that when it occurs it is firewalled by social media and conventional media outlets alike. More often women face and have to contend with hidden, unconscious bias. Here too, scientific societies have important educational and advocacy roles to play. For example the CPOW organized last year a panel discussion on Unconscious Bias, which helped participants to become more aware of the phenomenon, to recognize it more readily in themselves and others, and to take constructive action to combat it, whether in one-on-one conversations, grant panels, editorial boards, hiring committees, etc. In truth, with more diverse representation, we all win!

Three Asian women scientists are in the lab. Quote reads: Women have to contend with unconscious bias. Scientific societies

What Can You Do?

Are you a member of a professional society? Tell us about your experiences in the comments. Rajini and Gabriela encourage you to get involved, volunteer and make a difference!

About Our Guests

You can follow Rajini (@madamscientist), Gabriela (@PopStarLab) and The Biophysical Society (@BiophysSoc) on Twitter.

Photo credits:

  1. ECSP, CC 2.0 via Flickr. Adapted by STEM Women
  2. US Embassy New Delhi, CC 2.0 via Flickr. Adapted by STEM Women

USAID Asia via Flickr. Adapted by STEM Women

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