Women belong in science: Striving for gender parity at Fred Hutch

A commentary by Fred Hutch's President and Director
Dr. Sue Biggins and panel
Fred Hutch biologist Dr. Sue Biggins discusses challenges faced by women in science during an October panel at Fred Hutch. On the far left, Dr. Peggy Porter listens. Acerta Pharma's Dr. Cecile Krejsa is in the center. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

A version of this op-ed was originally posted on the Association of American Cancer Institutes Commentary page

Last spring, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray visited us at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to discuss issues facing women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. I had the honor of moderating a roundtable discussion that included Sen. Murray and several female scientists from the Hutch and other Seattle-area research organizations, some senior faculty and some just starting out on their scientific careers.

As Fred Hutch’s president and director, I’m passionate about striving for — and reaching — gender parity among our faculty and increasing our support for the incredible women in research already part of our team. As Sen. Murray said at that discussion, “Half of our population is women. We can’t leave them out of the equation.”

It’s incumbent on all of us in science leadership to send the message to underrepresented groups, including women, that they belong in science and have important, unique contributions to make. I am proud of the many stellar female scientists we have at the Hutch. Their success and the influence they’ve had on their diverse research fields reaffirm my conviction that we must take concrete steps to increase our number of female faculty.

Since Sen. Murray’s visit, I’ve continued to discuss the issue with many of my colleagues at the Hutch to determine the best way to reach our goal of gender parity in our scientific faculty. Currently, 36 percent of our faculty are women, mirroring the nationwide trend. Like many research institutes across the country, our junior researchers below the faculty level are more equally split: Of our postdoctoral research fellows, 47 percent are female.

We can and should do better than the national average. We’re missing important contributions and innovations by not making research science attractive or inclusive enough for female scientists. What can we do to get from 36 percent to 50 percent female faculty and to better support the women already here?

My colleagues and I have identified two key areas where the Hutch (and, we believe, academic science in general) could improve. These are not the only barriers to women in science, but they are two areas where we can start making concrete changes.

More female role models and mentors

The more that early-career women see successful female scientists around them, the more they will feel they have a place in science. Our senior female faculty members are leading by example every day at the Hutch, and I am proud that we retain and promote so many of them. Of our full members (the equivalent of full professors at research universities), 40 percent are female, compared to the national average in life sciences of 23 percent. And two of our five scientific divisions are led by female directors.

Dr. Garnet Anderson, director of our Public Health Sciences Division, recently told me told me that she experienced a lack of female role models early in her training.

“I think that has changed dramatically in many but not all fields,” she said. “Having leadership, or at least the camaraderie of others like you, provides a very powerful support mechanism.”

There’s more we could do to ensure that our early-career researchers benefit from successful women in senior faculty and leadership positions. Part of the solution is simply to hire and promote more women to those jobs, but I also want to flesh out and formalize our mentorship program for all junior faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. We have incredible role models here like Dr. Anderson, Nobel Laureate and National Academy of Science member Dr. Linda Buck and National Academy of Science member Dr. Sue Biggins. It’s important for these successful women to continue to engage and mentor junior scientists and for us to put in place better systems to support and encourage that mentorship.

Dr. Biggins thinks seeing female role models will help more early-career female researchers stay in academic science. When they don’t see successful women around them on a regular basis, “it sends the message that it’s harder for women, they don’t have role models to look at,” she said. “However, when there are more senior women to interact within a department, early-career researchers are less likely to perceive as many barriers to success.”

Better support for young families

Academic researchers often start families at key transition points in their careers. For a variety of reasons, not only biological, the responsibility of carrying and raising young children may disproportionately affect female academic scientists. Academic science needs to embrace the idea that families are not a problem to be solved in a research career but rather are an integral part in the lives of the people who do science.

As Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, a senior clinical researcher at the Hutch and long-standing mentor to many young scientists, puts it: “Women in science usually take on the additional role of motherhood between the end of graduate school and the first few years of their postdoctoral training, or after they are appointed assistant professors. Mentors, training grant PIs, division heads and NIH program officers do not welcome this dual role … these powerful people have not taken action that would suggest they are supportive.”

Dr. Torok-Storb suggests we could encourage senior faculty to compete for NIH program grants that can support junior faculty part-time: “Everyone’s so focused on working independently … People starting families could work 40 percent quality time on a program and make a contribution. But it’s important that we view it as such, not as dependent on, but contributing to.”

There’s a lot we could do to support our researchers once they become parents. At the Hutch we are currently working on benchmarking our efforts in this area with those of our peer institutions to make sure we are offering faculty and staff the best support we can in this important period of their lives.

I want to ensure that not only are we competitive with other top research institutes as we seek to recruit talented early-career scientists but that the Hutch is equally appealing to both male and female researchers — those already part of our team and those who are considering joining us. Our very popular on-site child care center, Hutch Kids, is a great starting point for us as we look into other family-friendly benefits and policies and how we may strengthen some of these to better support our scientists who are also mothers and fathers.

It goes without saying that our efforts to reach gender parity in science require funding in addition to leadership. We’ve received much-appreciated support from the NIH across many aspects of our work to prevent, treat and cure cancer and other diseases. We’re also very thankful for Sen. Murray’s interest in our work and her tireless advocacy to increase funding for scientific research and education in the U.S. However, the NIH budget has been in essence flat since 2003, which is frustrating our efforts to sustain and grow superb research teams.

There are many reasons why the Hutch and I added our voices to the efforts of AACI and others who asked the U.S. Congress to increase the NIH budget for the next fiscal year to $32 billion. I believe that solid backing to train and support the next generation of U.S. scientists, especially for women and other groups currently underrepresented in science, is chief among the reasons for continued federal investment in scientific research and education in our country.

Fred Hutch News Service staff writer Dr. Rachel Tompa contributed to the writing of this piece.

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Q&A: A conversation about gender bias in science Seattle researchers gather for AWIS-Hutch United panel on women in science October 22, 2015

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