Friday, March 10, 2006

Women in Science and Medicine - request for comments

I'm looking for a little insight here from my dear readers, especially my regular lurkers and women with careers in science and/or medicine. What I'm not looking for is validation, just some understanding as to where I might be going wrong as a mentor of female scientists.

As many of you know, 8 March of this week was decreed Blog Against Sexism Day. I'm pretty proud of the fact that, on average, 3 out of 4 of my trainees have been women, and many have gone on to outstanding programs and faculty positions. One of my all-time idols in cancer chemotherapy is the late Gertrude Elion, co-inventor of several antimetabolite anticancer drugs and 1988 Nobel Laureate in Medicine or Physiology - all of which was accomplished without a Ph.D.!

In registering my pride in my incremental contributions, particularly in the comments section of Dr Janet Stemwedel's post on Adventures in Science and Ethics, I encountered some resistance to a commenter who found me to be back-patting and simply molding young women into becoming subserviant to the patriarchal science machine.

For the first time in the four-month infancy of this blog, I've been taken to the carpet to question and reevaluate how I approach mentoring and counseling female trainees in my research group.

My approach has always been to create an environment where all of my trainees can succeed in the way that suits them, personally and professionally. I started my career thinking I'd go to grad school to end up as a drug development researcher in big pharma, but fell in love with academia and teaching, warts and all. However, not everyone is me (thank god), and not everyone who walks through the doors of my lab wants the same thing from science. I try to respect that, regardless of gender, and help guide the trainee toward a career that suits them.

However, Polly Anna took issue with my approach. I guess that I am just puzzled as to what I should be doing differently, as most of her comments were critical without suggesting a solution to my behavior.

With apologies to Janet, let me reproduce some of the exchange I had with Polly Anna. First, from me, comments on Janet's post that the situation for women in science is improving, at least from my little view of the world:

"Janet, I pray that it's getting better with my generation (born '64, PhD '89). Women outnumber men in most of our grad program in biomedical disciplines and all of my Ph.D. graduates have been women. My lab has generally run 3:1 women to men and two of my former postdocs, the best I've ver had, have just gotten tenure track faculty positions this year - both women."

"I was raised by a strong Mom (and grandmother, too) who was encouraged by my Dad to go to nursing school when I was 10 - not a grad program, but certainly better than being a secretary for a Pfizer salesperson. I never knew anything about a gender disparity until I got to university, although my highly-technical, chemistry-heavy program had women kicking our asses most of the time and our valedictorian was a woman. The most successful person from my pharmacology grad program is a woman who had such high aspirations that she leads a $30 million/yr health consulting business in NYC - lab was too 'small potatoes' for her. One of my best friends as a postdoc had Science papers and was recruited by Duke and Cornell but preferred a large Midwest state school where her first R01 has been renewed."

"Mine are all anecdotes, of course, but I have grown up with excellence among women my entire life and career. Hell, I married one of the smartest people I know, who went to schools that would've laughed at my applications if I had the guts to apply. Now that we have a 3.5 y.o. daughter, I'll do all I can to be sure a similar culture exists for her. And, as for the one open slot I'll be having this summer due to my postdoc getting a tenure-track faculty position, well, we're always accepting applications...and my history tells me 3 to 1 that a woman will be my top candidate."



My personal experiences with female colleagues in science and medicine have been nothing short of outstanding. I'm incredibly proud of the accomplishments not only of my own students (in pharmacy, medicine, nursing, physical therapy, and physician's assistant programs), but the people I trained with who also just happen to be women.

But my bubble of pride was then deflated somewhat by the following from Polly Anna:

"Oh, my! It all sounds so simple."

"According to fellow polyannas, stat-quoting (got my Science paper, got my R01), back-patting Able Farmboy [sic] and BotoxicalGirl [sic; BotanicalGirl, who had commented on the abundance of women in the grad student interview pool in her program], all this is much ado about nothing; we are there, or soon to be there."

"Yet I hear some grad exec committees (mostly male of course) are attributing the increasing female composition of graduate programs to the same forces that have increased the composition of Asians."

"1. The increasingly thoughtless assembly line, high throughput technical data production nature of science at the expense of deep thinking hypothesis driven science (women and Asians are better at repetitive mass production and have "more precise hands" as techicians [sic])."

"2. The loss of "high quality" domestic male applicants to other "softer," but higher paying disciplines better suited for fulfillment of the "food gathering" gene cluster. All associated with the decline of American scientific education in grades K1-12 in general."


I then responded:

"Polly, not back-patting at all. Just saying that there are some of us out here trying to make a difference starting in our own labs. Moreover, none of my statement cites either of your points, especially the "thoughtless assembly line." The women who've trained with us are also the most experimentally creative and best writers I've ever worked with."

"But I continue to be deeply concerned about what needs to be done and live everyday with a physician-scientist-mother who is struggling to make it work in a so-called Research-1 paternalistic empire. I'm not asking for credit, but rather registering one anecdote of an XY who has many female colleagues making it work for them."



This caused Polly to take issue with my then-current and previous comments:

"Oh, my! Sorry for the misspelling, Abel."

[.....such high aspirations that she leads a $30 million/yr health consulting business in NYC.....best friends as a postdoc had Science papers and was recruited by Duke and Cornell but preferred a large Midwest state school where her first R01 has been renewed......postdoc getting a tenure-track faculty position.... misled me.]

"Owww, "the Midwest state school" putdown while going gaaa-gaaa over Duke and Cornell fooled me."

"Please forgive me for suspecting that you might be encouraging those girls to play copycat in pursuit of batting averages like the majority of their male counterparts."

"At the expense of learning to enjoy playing the game, following their ideas, making great conceptual advances, and to be excellent for its own reward."

"Oh, goodness! I can't resist copying a post of mine from another site in response to the same general topic:

"Oh, my! It all seems so simple. The honest, open and altruistic practice of science, the search for truth by a method that all must eventually agree upon and reproduce, is its own reward. The high E/A members of the species will always be at a disadvantage in inverse proportion to which this "raison de etre" can be achieved (E=estrogen; A=androgen)."



At this point, what got me thinking, and admittedly defensive, was her argument that I am merely encouraging my "girls" (her word) to play copycat with men in science.

Here's what I said next, trying at least to solicit what she thinks needs to be done instead:

"Polly, no good deed goes unpunished, eh? I fear you may be reading into my comments whatever supports your anger. For this, I apologize. But I would certainly welcome constructive comments on how you think I could modify my behavior in a way that would help the trainees who I am honored to guide."

"No put-down intended about the Midwestern state school which, in my opinion, is one of the top 3 state research universities in the country. Moreover, I aggressively counseled this colleague against Duke in particular since I knew personally at the time that they ate their own young and, until recently, had a poor record of junior faculty development regardless of E/A ratios. In her current position, she is an internationally well-respected scientist with a loving home life as well. I have never seen her happier or more fulfilled."

"I'm also sorry that I have to balance my mentoring with the actual, fact-based performance metrics required to survive in this increasingly competitive funding environment and with outcomes-driven promotion and tenure committees. I don't consider it solely as, "At the expense of learning to enjoy playing the game, following their ideas, making great conceptual advances, and to be excellent for its own reward." If they can't stay funded, they no longer will have the luxury of pursuing their dreams and making conceptual advances because they will be out of a job. Assuming that they want to stay in this business, pretending these metrics don't exist is a disservice to them. If they wish to pursue science in another paradigm that suits them, I still continue to support them. If they choose to leave science altogether, I support them equally in whatever endeavor they choose."

"Lest you think me an androgen-raged misogynist, I will also note that two of my three Ph.D. grads are happily pursuing their family lives prior to getting back into science full-time - I heartily supported their choices to do what was right for them, not me. When, and even if, they choose to return to science, they will receive my highest level of endorsement as they pursue their own happiness and balance in their love for science and their families."

"If this doesn't satisfy you, rest assured that I am not a terribly successful scientist by low E/A ratios: I have never had more than five people in my group and am struggling with one R01 to keep the two people I have. I am only making a small dent in gender inequality issues but, IMHO, in the correct direction."



I have yet to get a reply, but I suspect one will be coming. I guess my level of discomfort comes from the supposition that I am minimizing the problem of gender inequality in the sciences and that, as a man, I am somehow brainwashing my female trainees into succeeding via the male definition of success. I alone cannot change the system, so my approach has been to help my trainees develop the tools to succeed in the system, all while respecting their personal decisions for a life outside of the lab.

Using another analogy, I hate departmental politics. But, to succeed, I've learned how to be more politically astute if for nothing than to protect my own resources and people. I don't really like the energy I waste on political manuevering, but to pretend politics doesn't exist would be the demise of my program.

What do you think? Am I deluding myself? Is it wrong for me to encourage women, women who expressly wish to, to compete for R01 grants, high-impact papers, and tenure-track positions.

More broadly, what can be done to prevent what some have called the "leaky pipeline" for women in science and engineering?

8 Comments:

At Sat Mar 11, 12:02:00 AM EST, Anonymous Rosey said...

Hmmm, perhaps this woman's personality style held her back more than her sex? She seems to misinterpret pretty innocuous stimuli. Behavior based on these types of misperceptions certainly would not endear her to supervisors and coworkers

 
At Sat Mar 11, 11:58:00 PM EST, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

I don't think you're deluding yourself; I think you're taking the approach I'd take myself if I were still in science. The rules of the institutions where science is done, and the cultures of those institutions, don't change overnight just because more women are there.

But, long-term, having more women there may well have very positive effects on the culture and the rules. The trick is to get more women (and others who don't look at the culture as an immovable object) sufficiently well entrenched that they have the power to make changes.

The danger, of course, is that the folks who get to powerful enough positions in the community to make a difference may end up buying into the status quo. (I've heard of this happening to people upon being tenured -- all of a sudden, there's nothing wrong with the system at all.) One wants to balance the ability to play well enough by the rules to stay in the community with the awareness that members of the community should have some say in how things (including the rules) go.

Stay the course. Give those you mentor the skills to survive (and excel) in the game as currently constituted. But also remind them that they will get to decide, in big ways and small, what the community they are entering will become.

 
At Sun Mar 12, 02:33:00 PM EST, Blogger define_me said...

I am quite baffled with her reaction. By stating that getting a journal publication and starting a research lab hints at females just succumbing to the patriarchal field of science does not make sense to me at all. She might as well claim that females who are CEO's of Fortune 500 companies are nothing but mere copycats as well.

I am getting the impression that this woman is not very familiar with the field of research.

Personally, I do not see anything wrong with your mentoring. I think it's great that you allow your students to explore avenues that suits them. I've heard of horror stories wherein the supervisors force their students to conform to their ways and agree to their ideas. Clearly, you are not like this. There aren't any Abel Pharmboy clones in the making.

Anyway, this is the 2 cents from an undergrad...

 
At Sun Mar 12, 09:28:00 PM EST, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

* Janet/Dr Free-Ride, thank you so much for weighing in since your post stimulated this discussion. The best thing I can learn from you is to keep encouraging my ladies to 'make it' in this patriarchal academic world, but then mold it in a way that is more welcoming. Your dual background in chemistry and philosophy is invaluable in this discussion. Thank you, Janet, for reminding me to take my mentoring to the next step and encourage my trainees to make a difference themselves.

*rosey - although I wasn't looking for validation, I am encouraged that you thought this commenters view was over-reactive.

*define_me - you now know that I am a great admirer of the skills of Canadian scientists. I appreciate your input on my recognition that my trainees' desires might not always be mine, but the ost important thing is to respect what they want to do. Your point about the female Fortune 500 CEOs is very well taken. I was blessed with a great PhD advisor who encouraged me to do a postdoc that would suit me, and not his aspirations for me. My only goal is to pass on the good, objective advice. As always, please let me know if I can be of help in your next step.

 
At Thu Mar 16, 05:10:00 PM EST, Blogger Shelley said...

Polly Anna seemed to have personal issues at play here, and perhaps her venting was more about her particular bad experience than anything else. In that sense, you represent (perhaps) those that wronged her: ie male PI's. Thats the only way I can make sense of her vitriol. Given her desire to see the worst in your post, no matter how many times you politely point to the contrary (and you were much to polite IMHO!), you should not take her comments to heart, as I seriously doubt anything you could have said would have met with approval.

As a female graduate student with a male mentor, I can honestly say that gender issues have never, not once mattered in our relationship. As long as you have mutual respect and support, I look at him and he looks at me as 'scientists' rather than male/female. Some may say that this is a sign we are perhaps ignoring the oh-so-oppressive environment towards women, but I take it as the highest compliment he could give me.

 
At Sat Mar 18, 11:12:00 AM EST, Blogger Ruth said...

There are some radical feminists who view the scientific method itself as a male mindset. They opt for the post-modernist, woo-woo sort of pseudoscience as being more female centered. All crap-keep what you're doing. I am a former scientist, looking to go back when the kids are a little older.

 
At Sat Mar 18, 10:16:00 PM EST, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

Ruth, thanks for your support. As I said, two of my students are in the same boat with you, intending to do science after focusing on their families. I just needed a reality check that I wasn't doing some crazy XY-fueled anti-woman thing. You have my admiration for focusing on your kids and I send you all best wishes for your return to science!

 
At Mon Mar 20, 08:17:00 PM EST, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

Shelley: I must have missed your comment earlier - you are very fortunate to have such an mentor. I enjoyed looking at your site and look forward to more of your writing. BTW, if you ever get to the John Jacob Abel lecture hall or exhibits in the pharmacology dept, please send me some digital pictures. I have yet to make it to your neck of the woods.

Good luck working toward your Ph.D. and let me know if I can be of help!

 

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