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Fall 208, Issue 9

Life Stories and Advice from Women in Science, Medicine and Engineering

The symposium on women in science, medicine and engineering hosted by Tufts University in April 2008 attracted a wide range of interested participants. While speakers mentioned many hurdles that still exist for the advancement of women in these fields, they also mentioned achievements that have been made in the past several decades.

The keynote presentation, “Expanding the Opportunities for Women in Science, Medicine and Engineering,” was given by Mildred S. Dresselhaus, PhD, Institute Professor, professor of physics, and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Dresselhaus was introduced by Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow, who knew Dresselhaus from his days at MIT and praised her broadly, saying she worked to give opportunity to others and help them become better.

Dresselhaus said she has been involved with the topic of women in science since the early 1970s when her friend and mentor Jerry Wiesner told her to go to leaders with solutions, not just problems—present them with the facts of why change is needed and how you think change can be achieved. For facts, Dresselhaus stressed the importance of statistics, which help you understand the issues. She shared graphs with her audience that showed more women are studying science, engineering, and medicine in the U.S. now than two decades ago, but that several other countries have almost twice the number of female PhDs that the U.S. has. Dresselhaus wondered why, and challenged her audience to look for reasons.

Women make up a small percentage of tenured faculty and faculty in leadership positions. Dresselhaus suggested several strategies for increasing the number, such as paying attention to the “two-body” problem (when a new job for one spouse requires the other spouse to relocate), establishing effective policies regarding benefits and family needs, and providing mentoring and networking opportunities. She suggested a solution for the two-body problem is for spouses to take turns throughout their careers—first one taking the better job, then the other.

Nalini Ambady, PhD, professor of psychology at Tufts University, presented “The Cognitive Basis of Gender Bias: The Role of Sociocultural Stereotypes.” Ambady said the bias that blinds us is insidious and often non-conscious. Studies show that it is likely to affect hiring and pay standards. She believes bias can be combated with education, diversity in role models, raising expectations for groups perceived to be less competent than others, and changing media that reinforce stereotypes. Ambady’s research is described in Issue 5 of Research News @ Tufts.

Karan L. Watson, PhD, Regents Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, dean of faculties and associate provost, Texas A&M University, spoke on mentoring and networking. Watson stressed that junior faculty members need both an academic mentor who helps them understand the traditions of the field and a career mentor who advises on career choices. She suggested that in order to change the culture of an institution, you have to change the daily conversation at the institution.

Hannah A. Valantine, MD, MRCP, professor of medicine and senior associate dean for diversity and leadership, Stanford University School of Medicine, spoke on diversity, cultural competencies, hiring, and retaining a diverse work force. Valantine stressed the need to use leadership as a lever for diversity. She recommends career development feedback, one-on-one coaching, and monthly dinner meetings with senior faculty to identify and develop future leaders.

Stephanie H. Pincus, MD, MBA, emeritus professor and chair of dermatology, State University of New York at Buffalo, and founding director of the RAISE Project of the Society for Women’s Health Research, presented “Women Leadership.” The RAISE Project has established a national clearinghouse and website that provides information about awards, award recipients, and the nomination process. Pincus recommends that women in academia plan their course, play to their strengths, be flexible, and live their values.

Laura Schweitzer, PhD, chief academic officer, Bassett HealthCare, and professor of bioengineering, Syracuse University, spoke about demystifying the promotion process. Schweitzer’s recommendations included learning your institution’s promotion and tenure policies, asking for guidance, keeping all relevant documents, and obtaining baseline data before starting a new effort so you can document your contribution to that effort.

Carol L. Storey-Johnson, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine and senior associate dean of education, Weill Cornell Medical College, spoke about negotiation, which she defined as communication between two or more parties to determine the nature of future behavior. Prenegotiation advice included delineating the specific details of what you want, assessing your flexibility, and determining what your alternatives are and why the other party should negotiate with you. Practicing various scenarios with a trusted friend helps greatly. At the negotiation she recommends explaining that you are hoping to open a dialogue rather than force a conclusion in the first meeting.

Abigail J. Stewart, PhD, Sandra Schwarz Tangri Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies and director, ADVANCE Program, University of Michigan, spoke on institutional change. Stewart said the ADVANCE Program at the University of Michigan has made great strides toward promoting women faculty in science and engineering, but that there is still much to be done. She suggests the single most important, low-cost action an institution can take is to create and activate a network of women scientists and engineers.

A discussion among a panel of Tufts female faculty leaders provided many incisive points, including

  • love what you do
  • be flexible and realistic in your life balance
  • realize you don’t have to be perfect to be effective
  • sever contacts with toxic colleagues and friends
  • find or create a supportive environment
  • create a career niche
  • ask for what you need
  • be persistent and develop a thick skin
  • realize the data is the data—you don’t always get the results you expected
  • get involved in committees so you can nominate women
  • say no to extra service projects when necessary
  • point out how and where family policies need improvement

Jamshed Bharucha, PhD, provost and senior vice president of Tufts University, provided closing remarks. He said that much had been accomplished in promoting and advancing women in science, medicine and engineering at Tufts but that there was much to be done. New Tufts initiatives include the Boston Campus Mentoring Toolkit and the Academic Leadership Development Program. Information on both programs is available on the Tufts Human Resources Website http://hr.tufts.edu.

For more information on the symposium, please go to http://www.tufts.edu/central/research/WISME.



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