Leading Women

Women who have risen in the academic ranks say they don't use different approaches when recruiting and mentoring male and female postdocs. But when postdocs begin to think about entering the job market, advice for women gets specific.

Although many disparities for women in science have disappeared, women are still more likely to drop out of the academic pipeline in the transition from Ph.D. to assistant professor and before making tenure—especially in biology and chemistry, according to a 2010 report from the National Academies, Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty.

So as their female fellows look to the job market and get ready to roll out their own laboratories, these advisors impart some words of wisdom. Here are the top pointers from three researchers.

Carla Shatz, director of Bio-X at Stanford University and member of HHMI's medical advisory board

  • "Everyone, but especially women, should apply for jobs they think are too competitive because the positions are at top academic institutions," she says. Larger institutions often have more resources, better infrastructures, fewer teaching requirements, better students, and special funds for extra technicians and even childcare. "Women and men are often surprised to find that there is more support for them at the top institution compared to a smaller place."
  • "There's never a good time to have children, so do it when you are biologically able to." Plan ahead for the impact of maternity leave on a postdoctoral fellowship or a new lab: Use e-mail contact to keep a manuscript on schedule, for example, or hand off critical experiments or animal care to another lab member. "This is not about women but about good lab policy."

Joanne Chory, HHMI investigator, Salk Institute for Biological SciencesLearn

  • to say "no" to things like serving on committees, award panels, peer review study sections, and taking on extra teaching assignments when they represent a burden as opposed to a responsibility. "Women are doing a lot of the grunt work of science. It's distracting from your own work."

Karolin Luger, HHMI investigator, Colorado State University

  • "The biggest affliction women have is wanting to be liked."
  • "Directly ask for the things you need," like a salary increase or more lab space. Women tend to wait for promotions and perks, while men seek them out.
  • And for scientist-moms: "Drop the superwoman act and don't sweat the small stuff—in the lab or at home. In the lab, delegate tasks and do not micromanage. At home, no homemade baked goods for school fundraisers. Store-bought is fine. And if an experiment prevents you from running to the store, no cupcakes is fine, too. There is enough sugar in a kid's day!"

-- Kendall Powell
HHMI Bulletin, February 2011

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