Science has a diversity problem, not only in racial representation but in gender. While the number of women pursuing STEM careers is growing, fewer than 30% of workers in science and engineering positions are women. Scientists like Drs. Gabriela Rodriguez and Juliane Jaepel are working to change this.
In addition to working as postdocs conducting research on cortical circuits, Gabriela and Juliane co-chair the MPFI chapter of the Network for Women in Science, an organization dedicated to providing women with mentorship, training and other resources to excel in scientific careers. Through NWiS, the two have talked to everyone from Girl Scouts to Nobel Prize winners, and are using their experiences to advocate for a world where women are equally represented in science.
A major focus of NWiS is mentorship, which both Gabriela and Juliane cite as critical in their own careers. “Mentors have been helpful in guiding my career, be it by encouraging me to apply for a job, a funding opportunity or to do something else that I’ve been hesitant to try. I’ve also learned a lot from my peers that were just a year or two ahead in their career – hearing about their successes, but also their struggles guided me in planning my own career,” said Juliane.
Gabriela’s mentors have helped her be more determined in her work, as well “Two main things I have learned from my mentors, both men and women, are that one, persistence will get you far and two, that women belong in any space they choose. I highlight these two important lessons because it is what I cling to when times get rough and in science that can be often,” she said.
For women of this generation, the discussion surrounding the lack of representation in science is not new, yet for both Gabriela and Juliane, it was surprising how much work was still left to be done. “As academics, we tend to see ourselves as very objective, progressive, and open-minded which contradicts the idea that there is bias and unfairness in our systems so many times we fail to understand that we are an extension of societal systems rather than an exception to them,” Gabriela explained.
In order to address these systemic inequities, Juliane points to several areas that need to change. “There are at least three big areas that need to be addressed: First, we need to actively work against the conscious and unconscious bias against women and other minorities in science: for example by using blind reviewing of papers and grants, which has been shown to increase the representation of female authors, and by writing gender-neutral recommendation letters and many more. Secondly, we need to actively promote women, be it by making sure to invite more women for conferences and seminars (and not just always the same ones), and by actively also interviewing more women as experts in their field. And third, we still need to find better ways to support childcare responsibilities, which is highlighted by the current pandemic, in which women’s productivity has fallen relative to men’s. Conferences should support childcare, we need extensions for grant application deadlines and more funding sources. Of course, this should not just benefit women, but also men that are taking on childcare,” she said.
With so much work to be done, the prospect of addressing inequality in STEM can be daunting. But for both women, seeing the positive impact of their work is motivating. Gabriela enjoys getting feedback from the women who participate in NWiS’s activities and mentoring programs. “When we come up with these ideas we are always trying to target a specific need, but learning that other women actually found it useful or encouraging in some way reaffirms the mission of NWiS,” she said. Juliane agrees, “The most rewarding experiences have been the ones that left people inspired: Be it at one of our outreach activities, where we can see young girls getting excited about science, or at one of our meetings where our guests inspired us to overcome challenges by sharing their experiences.”
Juliane and Gabriela are not alone in their efforts. NWiS benefits from a network of dedicated volunteers who help with events, communications, and outreach. For Juliane, having a team of supportive people is critical. Her advice to young women interested in pursuing a career in science is to build their own team of advocates. “Find a group of close peers and support each other. It is so important to have people that you can share your successes and problems with, that understand your frustrations, can offer you some advice, and that cheer you on.”
Gabriela also encourages young women to explore STEM opportunities and advises them to tap into their passion to move them forward. “As any other journey you have taken in your life there are ups and downs, but if this is what you love there is room for you.”
You can learn more about MPFI’s NWiS programs here.