October 17, 2016

Panelists address gender inequalities in STEM fields

Dr. Juanita Merchant speaks about work-life integration at a Women in Basic Science panel discussion in the Danto Auditorium at the Cardiovascular Center on Tuesday.

https://www.michigandaily.com/section/science/gender-inequalities-scienc...

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 8:19pm

In the first panel discussion of its kind on campus, six scientists from medical and social fields spoke about their experiences in academic medicine to a packed audience Tuesday afternoon at the University of Michigan Health System’s Frankel Cardiovascular Center.

The panel aimed to address issues of gender inequalities faced by women in science, such as overcoming the lower proportions of women holding senior positions.  

The event was organized by Durga Singer, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases and the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, and was funded by the University’s Advance program, an organization that financially supports events and projects specifically to aid the careers of women.

Singer said her goal for the panel was not simply to discuss issues in scientific fields, but to have productive conversations for those in attendance.

“My intention was to really have women who are interested in balancing careers in academia, with sciences and basic scientists being the main group because they have to balance multiple tasks,” Singer said. “I want them to feel inspired, and I want people to feel that they have even learned a couple new skills that they can take back to thinking about their own careers.”

Reshma Jagsi, the deputy chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, also introduced her social scientific research to start the event.

According to her findings, despite reaching near equal proportions of men and women in medical schools and at the undergraduate level, women are still underrepresented in senior positions on campus.

This led to a discussion with other professionals in the field and aspiring scientists struggling with gender gaps in academic success. Jagsi and the other panelists presented strategies and tips intended to empower women and advance their potential in their respective fields.

“Seeing gender-neutral norms, practices and policies can have a disparate way of impact upon women by forcing collision, biological or professional, or by magnifying the inequities of traditional gender division of labor in our society in which many women continue to bear the greater burden of domestic responsibility,” Jagsi said.

Jagsi said the onus is on the institutions that employ and educate women in science to develop targeted interventions supporting gender equity.

Panelist Alyssa Hasty, professor in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University, reflected on specific situations in her training, including maintenance of exercise, grant writing, student advising and her family as resources of offering advice to others.

“If it helps them persevere, it helps them be more successful and optimistic in their careers, then I think we’ve done our job,” she said.

She also suggested setting boundaries for better time management, saying this enforces productivity and the outcome of data to stay on track.

Maureen Gannon, the vice chair for faculty development in the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt, talked about being raised with the philosophy that women can do anything. Despite living with Crohn’s disease, raising children and doing work, she said she maintains a disciplined and rigid calendar.

Gannon said when it comes to juggling priorities, telling herself “This is good enough” is the best method of accomplishing all of the tasks.

Juanita Merchant, a professor of gastrointestinal sciences in internal medicine and of molecular and integrative physiology at the University’s Medical School, spoke about her experience as the only Black female to go through her program at Yale and the stereotypes she encountered there. She described self-doubt as a barrier but emphasized the impact that good mentors, tenacity and persistence had on her success.

The panel also discussed project funding in the sciences, an area where Merchant said statistically women are equal in aptitude as men, though they do not apply to as many grants. According to research Jagsi contributed to, global research funds are not equally distributed between genders, and standards are higher for women.

“If you don’t apply and incubate an ostrich egg until it’s perfect, you won’t get the money,” she said.

Bethany Moore, a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, stressed knowing your strengths and putting them forward to support you.

“Just don’t quit," she said.

Moore also said the flexibility of her job allows for quality time, even if there is not as much quantity. This helps with the integration of her professional and personal life, she added.

The panelists agreed on the importance of socializing with colleagues, regardless of gender, race or specialty.

“If you can’t get a drink at a bar, you won’t be successful in science,” Gannon said. 

LSA freshman Sydney Box said though she attended the event because it was required for her class, she found the topics discussed highly relevant as a woman going into political science.

“I feel like it’s important to change the worldwide stereotype that scientists are thought of or portrayed as, as men,” Box said.

Christine Freeman, research assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, echoed Box’s sentiments that the event shed light on topics pertaining to her field, and said she wanted to learn from women who experienced similar setbacks.

“In my department, the proportion of men in senior positions to women in senior positions is not reflective of the trainees you see coming in,” she said. “There seems to be a loss of women along the way, so any tips or help from senior women who have gone past that hurdle is important to me.”