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In the war against the coronavirus, leading women scientists are among the generals. For instance, Kimberly Prather of UC San Diego, has been a leader in establishing the role that airborne transmission plays in spreading the virus. The renowned UC Berkeley researcher Jennifer Doudna—a pioneer in gene-editing technology—threw herself into efforts to improve testing and accelerate the search for a vaccine. Countless other women, including epidemiologists, doctors, nurses, and lab technicians, have devoted themselves to crushing COVID-19. That women in science and medicine should figure so prominently during the pandemic only stands to reason. Why go into battle with just half an army?

Yet the urgent, high-profile research that female scientists are doing now is also a reminder of how much the sciences have sacrificed by shutting women out in the past. In my six decades in science—as a researcher, a businesswoman, and a high-level administrator—I have had to persevere when told, sometimes subtly but often quite overtly, that women don’t belong in science. When I applied for a graduate fellowship to study bacteriology, a professor told me the department didn’t waste such positions on women.

Since 2000, women have earned more than half of the total number of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees in the United States and more than half the doctorates. Yet after centuries of prejudice, we remain a minority among scientific leaders overall. Once women earn their Ph.D., they receive only 39 percent of postdoctoral fellowships and 18 percent of professorships. The scientific enterprise remains deeply conservative. The stereotype of the male genius—especially the white male genius—is still ingrained today. The more decorated a male scientist is, the fewer women he trains, and universities hire their junior faculty members from these elite men’s labs.

To find a supportive male adviser when I was in graduate school, I had to change my field or my research focus seven times. I pursued chemistry, English literature, bacteriology, medicine, genetics, and oceanography. After settling into the study of marine bacteria, I switched from Pseudomonas aeruginosa to the far more interesting Vibrio cholerae, the cause of cholera pandemics.

This post is adapted from Colwell’s recent book.

Even as my career was beginning to take off, a leading microbiologist approached me at a conference in the early 1960s to criticize a paper I’d recently published, for which I’d used the most powerful electron microscope then available to study the structure of cholera vibrios. His problem with my work? “Young lady,” he insisted, “you cannot use electron microscopes to identify bacteria. You must use a proper staining method and the human eye.” (Of course, he was the inventor of the staining method he had in mind). He then asked me whether my husband knew where I was.

Initially, rejections such as this made me cautious. I was young and inexperienced. I knew I would have to proceed carefully, documenting each step in every research project I undertook. However, over the course of my career, I came to recognize that dismissive comments from older male scientists weren’t the sign of a personal failure. They were part of a broader pattern—one that other women scientists of my and subsequent generations have encountered. Carol A. Nacy, a former president of the American Society for Microbiology, has been mistaken for a secretary four times in recent years while making pitches to venture capitalists for three companies she founded. After years of practice, she has figured out how to game the system, she told Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, the co-author of my recent book. “When I go to a venture-capital group of only men,” Nacy said, “I do most of the speaking, and my chief business officer and I watch faces. If they’re incredulous about something I’ve said, he’ll repeat the same thing—and then it’ll be just fine.”

The good news is that legions of women scientists have been fighting back against this sexism for years, in many cases with extraordinary success. Being trained to gather data to measure and document problems helped us prove that the issues we faced existed, and the problem-solving skills we’d honed in our labs helped us figure out how to address them. For Nancy Hopkins and other women at MIT in the late 1990s, that meant taking out a tape measure and showing that, while senior male professors had labs averaging 3,000 square feet, senior female professors had, on average, just 2,000 square feet in which to work—roughly as much as junior male faculty members.

I’m happy to say that advances have been made to enhance the participation of women in science, mathematics, technology, engineering, and medicine since I began my career. By the mid-1980s, women in microbiology were banding together to make sure that nominations for leadership positions in professional organizations included women—not just once, but year after year, so that we’d have time to make reforms last. During my tenure as director of the National Science Foundation, I worked with the president and Congress to increase the country’s overall budget for research in science, mathematics, and engineering. My team and I also made it a national priority to lift the status of women in academic science and to reform the misogynistic culture of universities. We launched ADVANCE, a program that, from 2001 to 2018, funded contracts to solve problems experienced by women in the sciences on more than 100 campuses.

Despite all of these efforts, major disparities persist. A study last year found that the typical National Institutes of Health research grant to a male principal investigator is $41,000 larger than to a female one. The gap between NIH grants for women and men is even larger at top universities: $68,800 at Yale and $76,500 at Brown.

In 2011, the biologist Jo Handelsman and her team at Yale decided to perform an experiment to see just how bad bias against women in science was. She persuaded 127 scientists in biology, chemistry, and physics departments at six leading research universities across the country to evaluate a job application. Ostensibly, the application came from a recent graduate seeking a position as a laboratory manager, and all of the applications were identical, or almost: half the applications were signed “John,” and half were signed “Jennifer.” The disturbing results revealed both men and women scientists judged the male applicant to be more competent than the female applicant with identical qualifications. More faculty members said they’d hire John than Jennifer, and those who were willing to hire her would pay her almost $4,000 less a year. All across the board—no matter their age, sex, scientific field, or tenure status—faculty members preferred John.

In their own research, scientists run randomized double-blind experiments, in which neither the scientist nor the subject knows who has received an experimental drug or a placebo, because they recognize their biases could cloud their interpretation of the data. Yet no such safeguards are in place for most of the decisions that affect the career of women scientists. Letters of recommendation for women are shorter and stress that the applicants “work hard” and are “diligent,” while letters about men use words such as outstanding and superstar.

Fortunately, many useful policies and procedures that would improve the standing of women in science are relatively straightforward. Banning all-male search committees for faculty positions would be a start. Many professional societies have adopted policies that hold scientists accountable for sexually harassing or abusing women. That is a good first step. But universities and research funders also need to hold accountable those who won’t mentor women, for that too does great harm. For instance, the NIH, in issuing grants, could take into account the diversity of trainees in a lab.

Would-be female scientists need more support at every stage, and not just from federal science agencies. By age 6, girls have already begun to avoid activities they perceive as being for “really, really smart” children—but a little bit of reassurance from the adults around them can change that. A Google study of 1,600 men and women in the United States concluded that motivation from family members and teachers is the most common reason young women decide to study computer science.

The public interest in nurturing women in science doesn’t end when they get their doctoral degree. Because of the lack of affordable, high-quality child care, nearly half of the female scientists in the U.S. leave full-time science after their first child is born. The pandemic is only increasing the burden on women scientists who have young children. The sciences and all of society suffer when some of their brightest minds are forced to choose between caring for their families and conducting essential research.

As the COVID-19 pandemic makes evident, new threats that humanity can hardly yet imagine may emerge suddenly. The world cannot protect itself without the intelligence and skill of half the human race.


This post is adapted from Colwell’s recent book, A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science.

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