Expert Voices

Crashing the Old Boys' Science Club (Op-Ed)

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Yamina Berchiche, Mariko Kobayashi, Shruti Naik and Jessica Schneider are postdoctoral research fellows at The Rockefeller University in New York. They contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

There is still sexism in science. Sure, women scientists today don't experience much overt discrimination — thanks to the trailblazing women scientists of the past century, we no longer work in a culture with rigid, predetermined, gender expectations. Yet from the perspective of a female postdoctoral researcher, it is clear that the gender scales are far from balanced. Abysmal scientific funding, the surplus of Ph.D. graduates, poor compensation and increasing demands to balance family obligations with research are problems faced by all scientists, but as an aggregate hit women harder.

The disproportionate impact of those compounding problems on women is immediately apparent when examining the rates of attrition. While women hold 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees and constitute about half of the overall U.S. workforce, women in leadership positions — particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields — remain a minority. [We Need to Talk About the Sexual Abuse of Scientists ]

Re-inventing the Good Old Boys' Club

A gender gap is most apparent at the faculty transition: Women are simply not applying to tenure-track positions at research-intensive institutions. This gender gap is particularly pronounced in the biological sciences. In a recent study by the National Research Council, women received 45 percent of biology Ph.D. degrees but represented only 26 percent of applicants for tenure-track faculty positions.

One reason for this failure to retain women may be the overwhelming isolation, and one solution for this problem is to build networks. An improvement on past generation's "old boys' clubs," these inclusive networks will allow women to develop the much required social capital for career progression. [5 Reasons Women Trail Men in Science ]

In the summer of 2013, we and our colleagues at The Rockefeller University came together to launch an initiative called WISeR (Women In Science at Rockefeller) to do precisely that. By creating a strong, collaborative community of women spanning many scientific disciplines, we aim to generate a supportive platform that allows young female scientists to succeed not only at their current level, but to eventually join the ranks of leadership.

Institutional support is critical in building such a platform, and while many schools are making efforts to advance the careers of women in STEM, more must be done. Unwavering support and enthusiasm at Rockefeller — among students, faculty, administration and donors, through support of the University's Women & Science initiative — has been instrumental in the launch of WISeR. We argue that such initiatives must become commonplace in all STEM training institutions. We see no better way to provide early career female scientists with the support and professional development opportunities that are crucial to reaching — or at least approaching — equal representation of genders in high-level positions throughout the sciences. [Why Research Trumps 'Certainty' (Op-Ed ) ]

Standing out, standing up

Publicizing the success of established female scientists is an additional incentive for female trainees to stay focused and do great science. To recognize outstanding female leaders in biology, Rockefeller neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Paul Greengard and his wife, sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard, established the annual Pearl Meister Greengard Prize.

Using the honorarium from his 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine, as well as the public platform granted by the Nobel win to draw additional donors, Greengard founded the Prize in 2004 and named it for his mother, who passed away during his birth. This year's Greengard Prize recipient, Stanford biologist Lucy Shapiro, is a groundbreaking scientist and a paragon of success for women in science today. Pioneering the field of systems biology, Shapiro's career spans nearly five decades and she shows no intention of slowing down.

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A veritable polymath, Shapiro devoted her early years to the visual arts, turning her sails toward science while an undergraduate at Brooklyn College. Driven to understand how a cell functions in both time and space, Shapiro honed in on Caulobacter crescentus — a curious bacterium that, in contrast to most bacteria, which split into identical cells, divides into two distinct cells with different characteristics. Heavily dissuaded from researching this intriguing microorganism, Shapiro notes that it was the singular voice of Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock who advised her to stay this course. Despite their microscopic size, bacteria are not unlike cells of higher organisms, and Shapiro's work has provided a basis for many life-science breakthroughs leading to novel drug discoveries.

Shapiro attributes her ascendance in part to personal characteristics — confidence, vision, passion and focus — as well as to long-standing and immensely fruitful research collaborations. WISeR is built on a similar foundation. It is a solid network of women representing disparate scientific and personal backgrounds with a common goal: Build a stronger, more supportive community of female scientists locally and beyond.

Resolving the gender gap not only requires top-down solutions that rely on the action of female leaders, but also bottom-up approaches that promote networking and interconnectivity amongst upcoming generations of scientists. Despite the challenges that lie before us, we live in an era of unprecedented access to information and resources that can facilitate powerful and innovative solutions. With strong female networks, encouraging mentors, institutional support and the indisputable groundwork of female scientists, leveling the playing field for women in science is no longer an elusive dream, but a realistic and reachable goal.

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

Mariko Kobayashi