Ashley Waters, DPA, executive director of Woman to Woman Mentoring, Inc., spoke from a lectern at Hood College. People with mentors, she said, have better prospects in life.
Mentoring was one of the reasons Waters and several dozen others—both in person and virtually—had come to the small Frederick campus. They were gathered for Women in Science Speak, a celebration of women and girls in science and a mentoring discussion about overcoming the substantial disparities and gender bias in the field.
Joining Waters were Andrea Chapdelaine, Ph.D., president of Hood College, and Ethan Dmitrovsky, M.D., laboratory director of Frederick National Laboratory (FNL). Both organizations co-sponsored the event with Woman to Woman Mentoring, and both leaders spoke of the benefits of creating equitable opportunities for women in scientific fields.
Frederick County Executive Jessica Fitzwater and Mary Ford-Naill, economic development manager in the City of Frederick’s Office of Economic Development, also attended and proclaimed local observances of Women and Girls in Science Day.
The main event, however, was a panel discussion featuring four women scientists. Over the next hour, they fielded questions about their careers posed by audience members and moderator Mary Kearney, Ph.D., deputy program director of NCI’s HIV Dynamics and Replication Program. Excerpts are below.
‘An Asset, Not a Hindrance’
When asked to give advice to women beginning careers in science, technology, engineering, or math, panelist Christine Fennessey, Ph.D., head of the Viral Evolution Core at FNL, recalled trying to fit in and agree with her male peers in graduate school.
“I’d wish I’d known that being a woman in science is an asset and not a hindrance,” she said, pointing out that it can offer a fresh perspective. “The fact that I was a woman and thought differently, that offered a unique asset.”
Panelist Banis Githinji, DNP, a National Institutes of Health research nurse practitioner, spoke on feeling out of place. She reminded women that no one has “given” them their position.
“You’ve worked for this. You’ve earned it,” she said.
Modeling after Mentors
Much of the conversation related to mentorship. Githinji encouraged women in science to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” These, she said, are forerunners both in science and in life, senior-level women scientists just as much as respected women in one’s family or community.
Panelist Nicole Fer, a RAS Initiative scientist at FNL, underscored that point with a story about Anne Monks, Ph.D., one of her early mentors who not only conducted excellent science but also had a sound work–life balance.
“I like to model myself off of her and help other women see the same thing: that you can do both,” Fer said, speaking of her work and her family.
Advocacy is also important, Fer said. She mentioned mentors and supervisors who recognized her capabilities and fought for her to be able to lead scientific projects despite not having a Ph.D. herself.
During the discussion, Kearney interjected with a reminder that learning from mentoring relationships is a lifelong pursuit.
“Mentorship is throughout your career,” she said. “Even when you become a mentor, you are still mentored.”
But the ugly truth remains that women and girls in science face much criticism—and that women in scientific careers frequently become discouraged and leave the field or feel pressured to do so. Several of the panelists had things to say about that.
“Somebody will say, ‘That’s not what girls do,’ or something slanted toward, ‘Women do this differently than men’ or ‘Women can’t do this,’” said Debbie Ricker, Ph.D., Hood’s provost and vice president of academic affairs. “My ultimate response is going to be, ‘Watch this.’”
The panelists’ comments emphasized pursuing a career because of passion for the field and a desire to make a difference, not to please anyone else. They said there was no point in listening to the critics.
“I work with kids who die,” said Githinji. “I can’t stop, because someone’s hope is in me and what I can do for them. For me, it’s the big picture. It’s not about me. It’s not about all the people who think I’m not meant to be in this.”
Balancing Work with Family
Another harsh reality are the demands placed on women scientists who choose to start families. These can cause them to leave the field due to economic strain or the struggle to find a balance.
Fennessey related an anecdote from her first postdoctoral fellowship, when many of her fellow female postdocs were forced to quit the program and seek alternative employment because they were paying their entire salary into childcare. Other times, she said, women rise to leadership positions and have increasing demands for their time that force them to choose between family and career.
Fennessey added that companies need to do more to support women, such as increasing maternity leave and adding a stipend for daycare or hosting on-site daycare if possible. She acknowledged that these would mean more corporate expenses.
“However, I think as companies—and I think this is happening—increasingly see the value in women in the workplace and see the value of retaining women in the workplace, that things are going to start to get better, and that women will no longer feel like they have to choose family versus their career,” she said, drawing a round of applause from the audience.
Fer agreed that more options would mean fewer women leaving science. She also encouraged women not to let others take away opportunities because they believe a woman might be “too busy” with her family.
“No one else but yourself can understand what you can put on your plate,” she said. “Don’t ever let anybody tell you how much you can put on your plate. You know.”
And for the women who do pause their careers to care for family, Ricker and Fer encouraged them to be clear and honest when asked about it in future job interviews.
“There’s no shame in having to take care of your family—ever,” Fer said.
Intersections Are Crucial
Rounding out the discussion, a Hood College sustainability major named Bella asked the panelists how they’ve incorporated other academic fields or their hobbies, interests, or faiths into their careers in science.
“That’s what I love about biology the most: when I can intersect it with things like policy, when I can intersect it with things like literature or the arts,” Ricker responded.
The answer hung in the air as the panel ended and an informal networking session began, a hum of conversation and laughter soon finding a home in the auditorium.
No single approach can solve these tremendous scientific and social challenges. Intersections and relationships will be crucial, both between disciplines and backgrounds.
And—most importantly—between people.
Professional development, advocacy, and support resources that may be of use to women scientists and staff at NCI Frederick include:
- NIH Women Scientists Advisors
- CCR Women Scientist Advisors (aimed primarily at the Center for Cancer Research)
- DCEG Women Scientist Advisors (aimed primarily at the Division for Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics)
- Sallie Rosen Kaplan Postdoctoral Fellowship for Women Scientists
- CCR Fellows and Young Investigators Association (Center for Cancer Research only)
- Frederick Diversity Committee
- Course opportunities for trainees and fellows
- NIH Resource and Referral Services
- NIH Parent Coach
- Curated parenting, elder care, and life balance webinars
- Pathway to Parenthood
- Parenting LISTSERV
- Adult Care Support LISTSERV
- NIH Back-up Care Program (federal employees only)
- NIH Child Care Subsidy Program (federal employees only)
Samuel Lopez leads the editorial team in Scientific Publications, Graphics & Media (SPGM). He writes for newsletters; informally serves as an institutional historian; and edits scientific manuscripts, corporate documents, and a slew of other written media. SPGM is the creative services department and hub for editing, illustration, graphic design, formatting, multimedia, and training in these areas.
Teaser image by Alexandra Edwards