The Female Coalition Building a Better NIH for All

By Chris Worthington, staff writer; photo of Dr. Bernadine Healy by Ernie Branson, National Institutes of Health, shared under the Creative Commons license
A scientist receives an NIH Director's Award from her boss.

Eric Freed, Ph.D., program director, HIV Dynamics and Replication Program, presents the 2019 NIH Director’s Award to Mary Kearney, Ph.D., senior scientist, HIV Dynamics and Replication Program. Kearney received the award for helping promote women in science as a member of the Women Scientist Advisors Executive Committee. Image provided by Dr. Kearney.

Nearly two decades ago, the late Dr. Bernadine Healy, NIH’s first female director, formed a task force to evaluate the status of women scientists in the Intramural Research Program. The team’s final report noted that, among other issues, NIH lacked uniform tenure and promotion policies and likely suffered from a gender-based pay gap.

In response, Healy’s team suggested that each institute and center choose a senior scientist (preferably a woman) to advise senior leaders on issues facing women in the sciences. Together, these elected representatives would be known as the Women Scientist Advisors (WSAs).

“The mission was to have official positions filled by women in the NIH who could advise leadership on how to make the work environment better for women, how to promote women, and how to get women into leadership positions,” said Mary Kearney, Ph.D., a senior scientist in the HIV Dynamics and Replication Program and one of the Center for Cancer Research (CCR) WSAs.

Seventeen years later, the WSAs remain a vital part of the NIH community, including at NCI at Frederick, where they collaborate with leaders to identify unmet needs and drive change. Their work includes everything from recruiting lecturers—for instance, seeking out influential female speakers for the CCR Grand Rounds—to engaging the surrounding community, where Kearney is currently working with groups such as the Graduate Women in Science and 500 Women Scientists to coordinate and efficiently deploy their resources.

Promoting Equality, Deconstructing Bias

According to the WSAs, fewer than 23 percent of NIH senior investigators are women, and that number hasn’t changed significantly in the past 25 years despite women accounting for more than half of recent M.D. and Ph.D. graduates in the United States.

“Eventually, we’ll hopefully get to the point where we have equal numbers of women in leadership positions,” Kearney said. She added that CCR leaders, including Director Tom Misteli, Ph.D., have done an excellent job of promoting women. Today, half of CCR’s deputy directors are women—but there have been many hurdles to overcome, including issues like unconscious bias.

Kylie Walters, Ph.D., acting chief of the Structural Biophysics Laboratory in the Center for Cancer Research, served as a WSA until two years ago. She and her WSA colleagues, in collaboration with Hannah Valentine, M.D., chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, initiated a series of unconscious bias training classes in both Frederick and Bethesda.

“[The courses] raised awareness to the differences in everyone’s perception when judging different candidates and assessing seminar speakers, for instance. The CCR leadership was really committed to encouraging all PIs to attend,” Walters said. “Unconscious bias remains a problem, but at least we drew awareness to it.”

Kearney added that bias isn’t just a problem for senior leaders making influential hiring and appointment decisions—it also exists for women and minority scientists who may feel grateful simply to be at the NIH.

“Now that I recognize that bias, I think, wait a minute, I’m not just lucky to be here—I’m contributing. They’re lucky to have me. So now I do fight for what I feel like I deserve,” Kearney said.

Ending Harassment in the Workplace

Among the most difficult issues facing the scientific community are gender and sexual harassment.

A 2018 study by Paula Johnson, M.D., president, Wellesley College; Sheila Widnall, Sc.D., professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Frazier Benya, Ph.D., senior program officer for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, detailed the prevalence of sexual harassment against women in academic science, engineering, and medicine.

Half of all women had experienced harassment, and 20–50 percent of students experienced harassment from faculty and staff. A separate survey conducted by NIH found that 20 percent of women at NIH had experienced gender or sexual harassment by another employee in the prior 12 months.

NIH Director Francis Collins called the results “quite sobering” and “simply unacceptable” in a lecture at the Lipsett Amphitheater in November 2018, and the revelations spurred an initiative to change the anti-harassment policy. The WSA executive committee played an important role: after working with experts to identify the necessary changes, they helped disseminate information and deploy the new policy, dubbed Harassment Does Not Work Here, at each of the institutes and centers.

“The new policy is aimed at getting [harassment] down to zero—that’s the goal,” said Kearney, a member of the WSA executive committee. 

Building an Environment Where Young Careers Will Flourish

While the WSAs primarily advocate for women’s issues, that’s far from the entirety of their work. The group also tackles issues affecting both men and women, such as work and family life balance. Recent discussions of daycare options at NCI at Frederick and an increase in the number of lactation facilities for working mothers, for instance, can be traced back to WSA advocacy.

Another primary goal is to improve career training and mentorship opportunities for fellows. Several years ago, Walters and her colleagues Deborah Citrin, M.D.; Patricia Steeg, Ph.D.; and Carol Thiele, Ph.D., counseled CCR leaders on the unmet needs of fellows at NCI at Frederick, and their final report led to the creation of a new position, Fellows Coordinator, that advocates for the fellows and provides them with information and resources.

Laura Hooper, Ph.D., scientific program analyst, became the Fellows Coordinator in 2018. She has since created a weekly newsletter highlighting upcoming events, “so it’s all in one location rather than having to comb through thousands of emails,” she explained. She also created a Wiki site that hosts the newsletter archive, slide decks from past classes, and a full-year events calendar.

“I think we’re doing well, and folks are starting to realize there are a lot of things going on around campus and there are a lot of things for fellows,” Hooper said. “Plus, if there’s something going on somewhere else and [the fellows] want it [in Frederick], they know to contact me to make that happen.”

Hooper is also helping to coordinate a program for pre-med post-baccalaureates that includes a tour of the NIH Clinical Center and a panel discussion organized by the CCR Office of the Director. The idea is to help recent graduates decide if a career in academic medicine is right for them.

Another valuable opportunity for female fellows, the Sallie Rosen Kaplan fellowship, is also more accessible now thanks to the WSAs. This highly competitive one-year program provides additional mentoring opportunities, networking, seminars, and workshops. After Walters and her WSA colleagues petitioned CCR leaders to increase enrollment, the program agreed to accept two more fellows. One of Walters’ postdocs, Gwen Buel, participated as part of the 2017–2018 cohort and found the experience very rewarding.

“The fellowship has made me more focused and productive and a bit less stressed about career goals and challenges,” Buel said. “It was valuable because it helps build confidence. I met a group of peers whom I likely would not have met otherwise and got a second mentor. I was able to get advice on what ‘extra’ things I should be doing to prepare for a career after my postdoc.”

A Balancing Act

One of the newest initiatives championed by the CCR WSAs is a seminar series that invites women in industry, particularly from pharmaceutical companies, to speak to NCI at Frederick fellows.

“They get a chance to talk to these women who have been in industry for a very long time and hold very senior positions. They can talk to them about what it’s like to work in industry, how it’s different from academia or from the government, what the advantages and disadvantages are, what their experiences have been being a woman in science,” said Kearney. “[Those talks] have been very well attended.”

Kearney noted that even she has learned from the seminar speakers, many of whom have emphasized work-life balance and the importance of having time in the evenings and on weekends with family.

“It made me think about things differently, because I work weekends and evenings, and maybe that doesn’t set a very good example for people in my lab,” she said. “So, it’s really changed my approach to how I work, to try to set a good example for work-life balance.”

Somehow, Kearney and her WSA colleagues have found a way to balance all the incredible volunteer work they do for the scientific community with their many other demands. Perhaps they are motivated by their limited time as advisors—the WSAs each serve a two-year term (there is a two-term limit), after which a new advisor is elected by other women scientists from the given institute or center. Regardless, it’s a testament to their resolve, passion, and desire to effect change.

“They are trying to address the needs of the entire community, whether that be for fellows, tenure-track scientists, or PIs,” Hooper said.

So far, so good.