Part II: An interview with Rosie Redfield

In the second part of our interview, Rosie and I talked more personally about mentorship and women in science.

Me:  Tell me about some of your early career mentors.

Rosie: I wouldn’t say that I was mentored directly, but maybe I was just too self-obsessed to notice that someone else was looking out for me. The term ‘mentor’ wasn’t used much, and there certainly weren’t any formal mentoring programs.

One of the lessons that I did learn, however, by being at grad school in Stanford was that there are many ways to be a good scientist – you can be weak in some areas and strong in others.

There was one thing that I remember.  When I was first thinking about the evolution of recombination, I spent a lot of time reading various genetics textbooks trying to find a good definition of recombination.  In one genetics textbook by Ursala Goodenough, I noticed that the pictures of geneticists included women.  Only then did I realize that all the other textbooks had only pictures of male scientists.

Looking back now, I also realize that in grad school, women scientists were the only scientists I ever looked at as role models – that is, I never looked at a man scientist and thought “I could be like him”, but I looked at some of the (few) women scientists and thought “I could be like her”. So now I think it’s really important that female scientists make an effort to be visible so that young women can see us and realize that they too can be scientists.


Me:  Why do you think that there are so few women scientists – the proportion of women to men is 50-50 at the postdoctoral level but then drops to approximately 20% at the faculty level?

Rosie: It’s a bit the scarcity of role models, and a lot the effects of unconscious biases. When I was first thinking about the evolution of recombination, I spent a lot of time reading various genetics textbooks trying to find a good definition of recombination.  In one genetics textbook by Ursala Goodenough, I noticed that the pictures of geneticists included women.  In all the other textbooks, I only saw pictures of male scientists. Never before had I consciously noticed that all the pictures were of men, but seeing the pictures of women made a difference.  Looking back, I realize that in grad school, I looked to female scientists for my role models in the sense that I could make a significant contribution as a woman and a scientist.  That only happened for female scientists and it wasn’t necessarily because they were fabulous scientists, but because they were conspicuous to me and doing science as I had wanted to do.   It’s really important that female scientists are visible so that young women can see us and realize that they too can be scientists.

I don’t think that women in the biological sciences experience frequent explicit or formal discrimination, but the unconscious biases that both women and men have are a killer.  In a book written in 1999, by Virginia Valian, called Why So Slow, she examines what are the factors that limit a woman’s success.  In the book, she presents examples of how unconscious bias affects our judgements about men and women.  In one study, subjects were shown slides of a conference table with 5 people (a mixture of men and women) sitting around it; two people are on each side and one is at one end. The subjects were told that this was a study to determine if an individual’s abilities could be judged from their appearance. Each subject viewing the slide was asked “Which of the people at the table do you think will make the biggest contribution to this group’s task?” And there was a strong bias towards picking whoever was sitting at the head of the table. Unless it was a woman.

A second example in the book came from survey of companies that did lot of international business.  They were surveying the status of the employee: how long had they been with the company, what was their position, pay level, number of promotions, extent of experience in their field, extent of foreign experience, number of languages, type of diploma or degrees, and where did they obtain their education.  One thing they found that was that for everything that correlated for advancement, it counted less if a woman had it. So a woman having a degree in advanced business administration from a prestigious university advanced less than a man with similar qualifications. That’s depressing, but hardly surprising.  What was shocking was the exceptions, which were attributes that, for a man, increased his likelihood of advancement in the company, but for a woman, decreased her chance of advancement.  And those two factors were speaking a foreign language and having ever lived in foreign country.  It turned out that men were assumed (unconsciously) to have these attributes in order to advance their careers (evidence of commitment), but women were assumed to have them for frivolous reasons (European shopping vacations?).

Intrinsic biases cause almost everything that women contribute to be valued slightly less than if contributed by a man. On average everything you do as a woman is valued slightly less than the same thing from your male counterpart (every idea you suggest in a conversation or a committee or a meeting, every note and correction and paper you write).  And the cumulative effect of these small cuts, is to reinforce that you, as a woman, are not an important part of the process. At first, you start out really confident and you either don’t notice that you’re being treated as less important all the time.  But after a while you start to think that it’s because you really are less valuable.  Ultimately it’s like compound interest: the individual effects are so small that we usually don’t consciously notice them, and if we do we’re criticized as being over-sensitive.  Every day many tiny things wear away at your confidence, and as you get less confident you’re more likely to allow your contributions to be ignored. In magazines and science-news, you see a picture of scientists who have made a valuable contribution, and its four men and one woman. Or you look a panel of awardees, or the speakers at a workshop, and they’re almost all men.  Even in a seminar, who asks the questions?  Mostly the men.

So for women in science, it’s the death of a thousand cuts (really, more like a million cuts). And I think that’s one of the major reasons we see so few women in science.

Me:  What can we do about this to increase the presence of women in science?

Rosie: One way to reduce the problem is to educate women and men about their own intrinsic biases. When I began I didn’t think these issues were real, until I started seeing real data, not just anecdotes, such as the study published in Nature in 1997 by Wenneras and Wold or the numerous examples in the 1999 book Why So Slow.

Many well-meaning men and women sincerely believe that they have no gender biases – they really don’t realize that we’re all part of the problem. Until we educate ourselves on the extent of intrinsic bias its really easy to just pat yourself on the back and think ‘that’s not a problem with me’.  Even really smart people have these biases, and we’re just as unaware of them as everyone else.  It will take a lot of education to make most of us realize how pervasive unconscious bias is, and how much it interferes with women’s career progress. It’s especially important to educate those in positions of power, such as those on the hiring committees, and those who assign people to these committees .

This might allow more affirmative action to be put into place, to compensate for the real (though unconscious) discrimination that professional women are working against.  As one example, some universities require that all search committees have at least one female member. To get these affirmative actions into place, you need people who are aware that women are operating at a disadvantage, but who also realize that this isn’t a kind of disadvantage that makes us bad scientists (if anything it makes us more careful and more meticulous than our male counterparts).

Me:  If this is one of the major challenges that a women faces in trying to establish a career as a scientist, what advice would you give a young female scientist.

Rosie: Although it can be difficult, knowing about unconscious bias helps. For some people, knowing about this unfair environment is enough and they’re out, they want to do something completely different.  But for the rest of us, it helps you to think, no I’m probably pretty good, I just feel bad because of this atmosphere. Of course, it’s also really important to like what you do.  If doing science makes you miserable you won’t do good science.

Me:  Do you think that some of the challenges you faced coming onto the job market are the same faced by postdocs today.  Has the academic landscape changed?

Rosie: Yes.  When I look at the applicants for jobs now, their CVs are terrifyingly good. I’m really glad that I’m not on the job market today.  Today’s job candidates, however, tend to be pretty specialized.  The ones who are hired though are not necessarily the most specialized.  I think that there is still a real interest in candidates who have breadth in their research and can think broadly in terms of issues in their field.

Me:  What advice would you give a postdoc today?

Rosie: Beyond what everyone else will advise? (“Publish!  Publish!  Publish!”)  Be prepared to give a really great talk that’s widely understood and accessible to a broad scientific audience.  And be able to situate your specialized research area in a broader context.

Me:  Thanks so much Rosie.  I appreciate your candor and insight.

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About Dilara Ally

Dilara Ally works as a Bioinformatics Scientist for one of the hottest biofuel companies in San Diego, CA called SG Biofuels.
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