Terra Sigillata

Thoughts About Gender in Science

The Scientiae blog carnival has been soliciting posts for their November edition on “talking to yourself.” Zuska brought this theme to the attention of some of us guy bloggers and carnival host Yami at Green Gabbro elaborated as follows:

…the past few Scientiae carnivals have been composed entirely of women’s voices. While I think it’s appropriate that women’s voices should dominate the conversation about women’s experiences, the job of thinking about gender in science belongs to everyone! I’d like to invite all you equality-minded men scientists to join the fun this time around – how do you talk to yourself about gender, and about your female colleagues?


When considering gender issues in science and medicine, the thought that goes through my mind is bewilderment – bewilderment that in 2007 we are still having these discussions and not evaluating, promoting, admiring, and mentoring fellow scientists because of their personal and professional attributes and accomplishments, not their gender.

Case in point: Harvard just lost Dr Nancy Andrews, a physician-scientist who served as dean for basic sciences and graduate studies in their medical school. Her new position is as dean of the medical school at Duke. What would normally be a modestly newsworthy story for a dean who happened to be a man is instead noted in the press release and on the webpage as:

Andrews, 48, is the first woman to be appointed dean of Duke’s School of Medicine and becomes the only woman to lead one of the nation’s top 10 medical schools.

When I read that, I wonder why the heck it took until 2007 for such a step forward? Is it really true that none of the nation’s top medical schools had a female dean until now? I am, therefore, bewildered.

Perhaps I am unusual for a male scientist. My mother and grandmother were strong influences in my upbringing and there were never any issues regarding their capabilities to do anything at all. My Mom, in particular, had the gumption to go back to college and get her nursing degree while my sister and I were in elementary school – I barely made it through college when I had no responsibilities.

Throughout college, women were the smartest and at the top of my class – a woman was our valedictorian. Most of my basic scientific skills learned while interning in a drug company were taught to me by two women. All of my PhD students have been women and my lab has pretty much run 75-80% women for over ten years – not because I made any special effort to recruit women but, rather, because they were the most qualified scientists at the time I had open positions. Sure, I’ve had men in my lab and my first technician now holds a lofty pharma position in Europe. But all of my trainees have done well, regardless of their gender.

The Scientist is now running a hotly-debated feature on what men can do to help keep women in science, compiling suggestions and comments for the upcoming January issue.

I’m bewildered that we have to have this discussion….again.

My suggestion: treat them like people.