Q&A: A conversation about gender bias in science

Seattle researchers gather for AWIS-Hutch United panel on women in science
Fred Hutch biologist Dr. Sue Biggins discusses challenges faced by women in science during an event Wednesday at Fred Hutch. On the far left, Dr. Peggy Porter listens. Dr. Cecile Krejsa is in the center. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

On Wednesday evening, a group of scientists came together at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for a panel presentation. This sort of gathering happens every day at a research organization. But this group looked a bit different from your typical crowd of scientists.

They were nearly all women.

The event was a discussion on mentorship and overcoming gender bias presented by the Seattle chapter of the Association for Women in Science and by Hutch United, a Fred Hutch organization dedicated to promoting and supporting minority scientists.

The panelists included cell biologist Dr. Sue Biggins, breast cancer researcher Dr. Peggy Porter, biochemist Dr. Julian Simon, all of Fred Hutch, and biologist Dr. Cecile Krejsa from the biotech company Acerta Pharma. The discussion was moderated by Hutch United’s Dr. Molly OhAinle and AWIS’ Katie Smolnycki.

Here’s a portion of the question-and-answer discussion:

Can you tell us some stories from your experience about a gender-related issue or obstacle that you’ve faced?

Simon: Let me start with a little bit of ancient history. When I got to graduate school [in chemistry] at Columbia University in 1983, I joined a research group that had 23 members. How many women do you think were in that group? Zero. We got our first female graduate student when I was in my fifth year. And I can honestly say that she was treated not unlike a Martian would be treated. I would like to think that we were all reasonably well-intentioned people. But women in chemistry — which is especially male-dominated — were such a novelty. Fortunately, she stuck with it and is now a faculty member at Harvard [University]. But that took a tremendous amount of commitment and perseverance that we as men didn’t need to muster. 

Dr. Cecile Krejsa, scientist with biotech company Acerta Pharma, takes part in a panel discussing women in science. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Krejsa: I thought Julian’s story was interesting, because the year the female graduate student entered his lab, that was the same year my male chemistry [college] teacher told me, “You’ll never be a chemist.” And it was because I was taking too much time cleaning my glassware before doing the experiment. I was being really careful. So I was like, I’m damn well going to major in chemistry!

Biggins: I went to grad school in the ‘90s and I didn’t see a lot of the stuff you’re talking about. My grad school class was half women. Coming to the Hutch [in 2000] I had the sense that things were definitely improving. My concern now is that there’s a feeling that the problem has been solved I feel like we’re at steady state and I’m not happy about that. What’s bothering me now is that I think we’ve gotten past a lot of the really overt, terrible behavior, and now we’re at this place where people think things are solved and we’re almost getting lazy.

We’re now achieving gender parity at the PhD level, but that’s not reflected in the higher ranks in academia. What do you think the obstacles are?

Biggins: I sit on plenty of faculty search committees and we are not getting many women applicants. So women are dropping out before they’re even getting to the faculty search. I want people to do what they want to do, and if not all women want a faculty position, great. But my concern is that they’re just not trying, and I don’t know what the answer is to that.

Krejsa: When I got my PhD, I saw the kind of stress that my professors were under and I didn’t feel like that was what I wanted for myself. So it was a decision not to engage in that type of job atmosphere. Is that the kind of job atmosphere that science has to have for women to succeed? I guess that’s the heart of the issue here.

Simon: When I walked into the room this evening, someone asked me, “Does it feel weird to be surrounded by women?” My reaction was that probably no different than it feels for a female Human Biology Division faculty member to walk into a faculty meeting. I think a lot of the self-selection that women make is looking at the upper echelons of [academic] science and feeling like, I love science, but I can do science without walking into a roomful of men. That will only take time and effort to fix.

Porter: Being a Human Biology faculty member, I don’t feel bad about walking into that room. I think that’s making us sound too sensitive, and I don’t think we are. We’re holding our own.

Cecile, does that happen in industry too? Are women applying?

Krejsa: You get the applicants, for sure. In industry, it has to do more with getting promoted. It tends to be workplace politics.

The issue of childcare and family responsibilities often comes up. Is there something we should be doing to help people navigate those waters? Should female scientists have families?

Krejsa: Absolutely. I don’t think it makes people leave science, I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think people might move toward a different career aspiration.

Biggins: That’s a question I’ve had about the huge drop-off from the number of women doing post-docs to applying for a faculty position. I worry that people think it’s too hard because there’s so much discussion about the stress of the job. I have two kids and there’s huge flexibility that I would not have in other jobs. If I’ve gotten that phone call from the school that my kid needs me, I can just walk out the door and my lab goes on.

Porter: When I went to medical school, I was going to be a surgeon and I had my daughter between my first and second year of medical school. I realized I could still do surgery, but I would not be able to raise her, somebody else would raise my kid because there’s no way to be a surgeon and be home.

That gets to this question: can women have it all? Which is not specific enough for me; what does “all” mean? Someone else is defining what that “all” is. If you define it for yourself, you can have the career you want. If you decide to be the president of a national organization, you will be traveling; you’ll decide that’s the kind of life you want. And if you don’t, you’ll make other decisions. It’s not compromising so much as deciding who you are. I think it’s more having what you want than having it all. I don’t regret at all not being a surgeon.

(Audience question) As a mom, I anticipate hiring managers thinking of a pregnant candidate, you’ll be on maternity leave and later miss a lot of work when your kids get sick. Do you think managers see the negative aspects of parenthood?

Krejsa: I don’t think hiring managers should see at as a negative thing because it is so common for people to be parents at some point in their working life. There are so many ways to work and have a family that it seems silly to imagine you shouldn’t talk about it as a normal thing.

Porter: It is normal. Maybe the Hutch and Seattle are a rare environment, but I don’t think anybody here holds pregnancy against anybody. When you’ve been employing people for so long, it’s always something. I think there a lot of people out there who see pregnancy as Cecile and I do, that it’s just part of what it means to employ people. It affects things, but it’s not any worse than many of the other problems that affect work.

Simon: I think the role of mentors is to dispel those myths that you can’t have a family or take time out during the early years of an academic or private-sector career to devote to a family. I think a lot of the choices that women and men make are based on incomplete information.

That leads into my next question. Did all of you have mentors that played a role in pushing your career forward?

Porter: I didn’t really take advantage of mentors in a way that was useful at all. I would just encourage people to do that. A female faculty member in the pathology department once told me, “Don’t bleed when there are sharks in the water.” That was probably the best thing anybody ever told me.

Biggins: I would say, don’t have this idea that there’s one mentor. I think the key for making it through is defining when you need help and finding the right person to give you advice. Really look around and think about the idea of different mentors for different parts of your life and career.

Any last tidbit of wisdom any of you would like to share?

Porter: I look forward to the time when there isn’t “women in science.” I’ve never been to a “men in science” meeting. It will be nice when this doesn’t feel necessary to all of us.


Fred Hutch graduate student Jackie Lang describes Hutch United, an organization dedicated to supporting minority scientists, at Wednesday’s panel discussion. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

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Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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