Sarah Chase: This special episode of Clear and Vivid, which highlights the experiences of women in science is brought to you by our presenting sponsor Discovery.
Alan Alda: For more than 30 years, Discovery’s global networks have been helping hundreds of millions of viewers understand their lives, their communities, and the world around them from science and nature to food and lifestyle, and now the world’s biggest sporting events and greatest names and travel and documentary films. The Discovery family proudly informs, entertains and powers the passions that drive our planet.
Alan Alda: I’m Alan Alda, and this is Clear+Vivid conversations about connecting and communicating.
Nancy Hopkins: When I looked around and I saw they weren’t any women on the faculty at Harvard I thought, “Oh, well, of course not because they must have chosen to have children instead of being professors at Harvard.” And I didn’t realize the fact that women had to choose was in itself a form of institutional discrimination, if you like, to create an enterprise where half the people can’t do the job.
Pardis Sabeti: What most of us perceived was not being told that we couldn’t do it because we were women, but just having people dismiss our ideas or roll their eyes or just always having a sense of what not good enough.
Allie Stanton: I imagine that there have been times that I’ve been treated differently for being a woman, but I’ve always been very reluctant to bring that up because I’m worried that their answer will be, “No, it’s not because you’re a woman. It’s because you did this thing wrong,” or because you are a bad scientist.
Leslie Vosshall: Throughout my career, I’ve been told by both men and women that I don’t look like a scientist, that I’m into fashion, so I won’t be taken seriously. I dye my hair blonde and some people think I’m an idiot, and I don’t think that a man will be taken aside and said, “You like fashion too much you can’t be a scientist.”
Jo Handlesman: Every time we talked about unconscious bias or implicit bias to scientists, they would say, “Oh, but this couldn’t possibly apply to us because we’re trained to be objective. And so, that, that’s not us.”
Leslie Vosshall: There’s talent everywhere. There’s amazingly talented women who are just being actively discouraged from continuing in science. It’s not a heart problem. Stop discouraging women from staying in the business.
Alan Alda: Those are some of the voices you’ll hear in the next hour or so. As we listened to three generations of women in science. Until only recently, shockingly recently, science was almost exclusively a man’s world. We’ll hear from women scientists about how things used to be, how they’ve changed, and where they haven’t changed, what can be done about it.
Alan Alda: Here in our studio, I talked with women who played a leading role in prying open doors that were once shut against them. Meanwhile, my producer Graham Shedd, and associate producer Sarah Chase, went out and visited labs headed by highly accomplished women. They explored these questions of women science today with those women and with some of their younger colleagues.
Graham Chedd: Yeah, I went to the Broad Institute in Cambridge to sit down with a woman called Pardis Sabeti and several of her younger female colleagues in that lab. You actually had Pardis on the show a few months ago, and I’ve known her for a long time as one of the most brilliant innovators in genetics.
Graham Chedd: She developed, when she was still young, a new way of analyzing genes to find genes that had evolved recently, human genes that have evolved recently, and in particular against deadly diseases like Ebola and Lassa fever. And she’s also a person who is passionate about mentoring her younger colleagues, both male and female.
Sarah Chase: And I sat down with another real star in her field, Dr. Leslie Vosshall. She runs a lab here at Rockefeller University here in New York and Leslie and her team are doing really fascinating work on why we humans smell, as Leslie put it, unbelievably delicious to mosquitoes.
Sarah Chase: So I wanted to know a lot more about that. And Leslie in addition to a lot of the scientific accomplishments that she’s had in her life, has also been a leader in promoting the place of women in science.
Alan Alda: One of the women I talked to was Nancy Hopkins, and when she came into the studio, I have to say, I really felt I was in the presence of an extraordinary person. She was extremely honest about her own personal revolution in becoming an activist. And once she realized what had to be done, she was methodical and relentless, probably what she was like as a working scientist.
Alan Alda: Not long ago, she retired from MIT after a stellar career in biology and that was during a time when biology was undergoing a revolution. Graham, you know a lot about that period. How would you describe Nancy’s contribution?
Graham Chedd: Well, relentless methodical as you just said. But in two completely different fields, which is amazing. She started off during the ‘60s and ‘70s when, as you said, biology was undergoing a revolution. We’re beginning for the first time to understand how life works at the molecular level, DNA and proteins and genes and all that stuff, and she played a major role in that, in particular studying the molecules and genes involved in cancer.
Graham Chedd: Then in the middle of her career she made this giant leap into a whole new field. She wanted to find out how genes work to build our bodies, build our hearts and livers and lungs and bones. And she decided to do this by studying this little fish called a zebra fish.
Graham Chedd: And what makes them so useful is that they’re transparent when they’re young, so she could make genetic changes in the embryos and see what effect they had on the organs as they were developing.
Sarah Chase: Alan, in your conversation with Nancy too we learned that she had to make a very important decision about her own genes. And that’s that early in her career she decided that she would not have children in order to focus on her scientific career.
Nancy Hopkins: And I looked around and I saw they weren’t any women on the faculty at Harvard I thought, “Oh, well, of course not because they must have chosen to have children instead of being professors at Harvard.” And I didn’t realize that that women couldn’t essentially be hired in these great universities when I was young.
Alan Alda: Regardless-
Nancy Hopkins: Regardless.
Alan Alda: … of your association with children.
Nancy Hopkins: Right. I didn’t realize it. So I thought it was a woman’s choice and I didn’t realize the fact that women had to choose wasn’t itself a form of institutional discrimination, if you like to create an enterprise where half the people can’t do the job.
Alan Alda: That’s something that Nancy became aware of only gradually. I wondered if she had any hint of what would be facing her when she first became interested in science over 50 years ago when women were few and far between.
Nancy Hopkins: Well, I was a person who fell head over heels in love of science. I had liked science in school. I liked math and science and I was better at those subjects and I wasn’t humanities because I was a very slow reader so I couldn’t be in the humanities and I had a very bad memory so I couldn’t study history.
Alan Alda: Being a slow reader was a problem?
Nancy Hopkins: Right. But in math and science there were very little to read and very little to memorize. “Why, this is great. I love this.”
Alan Alda: As soon as I heard Nancy say that I thought of the conversation I’d had with Katie Couric a couple of months ago. Today, Katie has the same passion that I do for science, but when she was in first grade and took a math test-
Katie Couric: I’ll never forget, I got off the bus at the top of our Hill and I ran home crying the whole way and I got home. I was six, and I said to my mom, “I got a two in math.” And I think that damn teacher, even though I love Ms. Lowery and she was a lovely teacher and sent me a handkerchief when I got married, she really kind of ruined math for me. Can I blame it on her?
Alan Alda: Well, she gave you two and she gave you any special help.
Katie Couric: She didn’t give me a one. I don’t know. But I do think I was culturally conditioned to think that math wasn’t necessarily a subject that girls excelled in. I was raised in the ‘60s I was born in 1957, came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I think there was still a lot of sort of stereotype thinking about certain subjects.
Katie Couric: I also didn’t do that well in science, Ms. Poland. What happened? I think, did she suspend me? Something happened in my … I think I got a D in science and got kicked off the cheerleading squad.
Alan Alda: Katie is so interested in science now. She really wanted her two daughters to get excited about science too. She even hid from them the fact that she hadn’t done well in math.
Katie Couric: I did. I never told her because honestly I just really wanted them to be excited about math and science.
Alan Alda: But instead of looking into science, both her daughters just as Katie herself did majored in English.
Graham Chedd: Oh, that reminds me of this study that was published just a couple of months ago looking into the pervasive notion that girls just aren’t as good at math as boys. Remember Nancy Hopkins saying she found reading hard and that was a reason she went into science? Well, the study, which involved over 300,000 high schoolers from 64 different countries found that it’s not that girls are worse than boys at math, but unlike Nancy, they’re better at reading, just like Katie and her daughters.
Graham Chedd: So, the gender gap that still exists between the number of girl’s going into math related fields isn’t so much because they can’t do math, but the superiority over boys and reading and verbal skills draws them to professions that value those skills, just like Katie went into eventually broadcasting.
Sarah Chase: I really like that study, but also, we shouldn’t overlook the role of gender stereotypes. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a veterinarian more than anything else in the world. And I remember somebody saying, “Well, to be a vet that’s going to require-
Alan Alda: You have to lift the horse.
Sarah Chase: You have to lift the horse, and you have to be good at math and science and all these other things. And that was sort of the underlying statement that was underneath what was being said there was that girls aren’t … Not only do you have to be strong at this, but you also have to be really strong in the sciences. And maybe that’s not what little girls are made out of.
Alan Alda: So they told you that?
Sarah Chase: They didn’t directly say it. But it was implied in the statement. And I think that happens quite a bit. But, I did show them because that was when I was entering fifth and sixth grade, and guess who had the highest biology scores in fifth and sixth grade? You’re looking at her, right here.
Graham Chedd: But you never became a veterinarian.
Sarah Chase: I did not, no. Actually, then I discovered political science at some point and traded one science for another. Again, there’s still just a huge difference in the number of girls and boys going into the sciences. This is something that needs to be addressed.
Graham Chedd: So one of the questions you and I asked of the younger women scientists we talked to was that these gender stereotypes put them off becoming a scientist party. Pardis Sabeti, just like Nancy Hopkins was all in for the start.
Pardis Sabeti: I was the girl in school who loved math, who really, really, really loved math, who solve puzzles during lunchtime, who sat by herself most of the time. Who was the only girl on like all boy math class. But somehow in there, that was like the best time. I used to get bullied every day during school except for like in math class when the door closed and it was me and like 15 boys and they were my best friends, and then the door would open and … So actually, if anything science was the only place I fit in. And so, that was like super fun part of my childhood and that stuff matters.
Alan Alda: I wonder how much your choice between science or not science is determined by talent and how much is determined by mentors and role models. What do you think?
Sarah Chase: Well, Leslie Vosshall had a great answer when I asked her if she had any role models that had influenced her decision, become a scientist.
Leslie Vosshall: Well, I have an anti-role model and a role model. My mother is kind of my anti-role model because I’m in my mid 50s and she’s of the generation where women didn’t work. They stayed at home. She didn’t have our own money. She had to ask my father for $10 to take us to the dentist, back at the time dentists were cheaper. And so, at an early age I said, “This is not going to be me. I need to have my own money.
Leslie Vosshall: I need to work, I need to be fiercely independent.” And so, that was a major driver for everything. I was very confident that I did not want to be a housewife. And the positive example was my uncle Phil Dunham, who was the scientist at Syracuse University and was one of the most important early mentors because he invited me to come to his summer lab at the Marine biological laboratory in woods hole.
Leslie Vosshall: And so I spent three months only doing science, actual science at the bench, buying reagents, designing experiments, interpreting the results at the age of 16, which is a really unique opportunity that none of my other classmates in New Jersey had. They learned biology and books, and it was really boring. I learned biology by doing it, and it was very exciting.
Alan Alda: That exposure to science early on seems to me to be a big predictor of a girl’s going into the sciences. I remember that conversation I had on last season’s Clear+Vivid with Hope Jahren. She wrote that wonderful book that’s very appropriately titled for this conversation, Lab Girl. Her father was the physics teacher in a small Midwestern college and Hope spent almost every day as a young girl helping him set up the lab before the day’s classes.
Sarah Chase: Having a parent in the sciences, I think, or even sometimes more commonly, even in medicine, seems to be a major factor in a girl’s decision to choose a similar career path. You know, it’s the idea that if you can see it, you can be it. so here’s a clip from Ellen De Obaldia. Ellen works in Leslie Vosshall’s lab. And I asked her if she had any doubts about going into a career in science when she was a girl.
Ellen DeObaldia: My mom was a clinical microbiologist in a hospital, so I saw a woman doing science from the very earliest days. And to me it seemed like she knew everything about bacteria and hospital infections, and I was so impressed by that and that I wanted to have the same type of career. When I wanted to do the science fair she supported that wholeheartedly above and beyond. I was doing science fair projects at home and in the lab that she was the manager of.
Ellen DeObaldia: That’s not really a research lab, so I went to work for Susan Ross at the University of Pennsylvania, and now she’s at University of Illinois. And I wrote her an email and I said, “I’m really excited about what you’re doing, studying a biology lab. I have this experience doing the science fair.
Ellen DeObaldia: I’d love to come work in your lab.” And I ended working in her lab for a few years until I went to college. And that was, I think, a really pivotal experience and opportunity that she gave me.
Graham Chedd: A parent or other role model as well as determination and talent they both seem to be big in a girl going into science. Here’s a young woman who was visiting Pardis Sabeti lab when I was there. She’s a researcher in Nigeria who where she collaborates with parties on Ebola research. Philomena Eromon.
Philomena Eromon: I guess right from being like a child, I’ve had this dream of being a doctor. So, most of the time in the school play I usually prefer like the part of the doctor. I’ve always had this flair for like sciences.
Graham Chedd: You didn’t have any second thoughts about how hard it might be as a female?
Philomena Eromon: Well, not really because I think my dad was very supportive. So, he was a scientist actually and most of the times like I follow him down to the lab and he was actually very encouraging. So, I actually taught like, “Okay, growing up like the science world actually give me like that same opportunity.”
Graham Chedd: Was anybody actively discouraging?
Philomena Eromon: Yeah, I had discouragement from like some male folks, like they were like, “Okay, this particular aspect is not for women because it’s very tough skin and it’s something you have to be like on like the job for like a very long time. So, if you think about family and all that it’s going to be like very difficult.” But I just felt like, “Okay, this is doable.”
Graham Chedd: And here’s another member of the Pardis Lab, Allie Stanton who experienced both encouragement and discouragement.
Allie Stanton: Definitely when I was a teenager, I felt a lot of encouragement from within my family, especially from my mom who’s a doctor. And I think sort of all of the discouragement that I felt was mostly coming from like male classmates in school particularly being like the only woman or one of only two or three women and like honors in AP science and math classes. I think it was very hard. And I think a lot at the time I really felt like I was being talked over and people weren’t really willing to listen to me and listen to my input.
Graham Chedd: But you persisted?
Allie Stanton: I suppose so. Yeah.
Graham Chedd: Why?
Allie Stanton: It was really the thing that I-
Pardis Sabeti: She was really good.
Allie Stanton: It was the thing that I wanted to do. And I think like when you’re excited about our problem, the way that other people react to you isn’t really what’s at the forefront of your mind. It’s really the science and your passion and not the way that other people are treating you.
Graham Chedd: But the prize for persistence among the women I talked to in the Sabeti Lab has to go to Molly Kemball.
Molly Kemball: When I started telling my family that I wanted to go into medicine there kind of unified reaction was, “Why don’t you just marry rich instead? Like, that’s easier.” So, wasn’t expecting that from any of them, and I’ve never seen my male cousins being told to marry rich. They’re told to work hard. That was really frustrating.
Alan Alda: That’s an amazing echo of the experience of a previous generation of women scientists. Not long ago I had a conversation with Lucy Jones, who’s a familiar figure in California, and I guess now around the country for her communication skills and talking about the risks from earthquakes. We’ll be playing that conversation in our next season of Clear and Vivid. But here’s what she said about her becoming a scientist.
Lucy Jones: I was at an interesting time coming into the science endeavor in that, when I was in high school, it was still before the women’s movement. And so, I would have things like my math teacher telling me I should choose Harvard over Brown because they were better class amend at Harvard. That was my math professor.
Alan Alda: That was your math professor.
Lucy Jones: Right. Or the guidance counselor who when I got a perfect score on science aptitude accused me of cheating and made me retake it in front of her, because women don’t get that sort of scores. So, that was my high school experience and I stayed with it mostly because of my father who was like, “Yeah, women don’t do science, but you’re my daughter. You’re going to be able to do it.” He is an aerospace engineer.
Alan Alda: So, all the women we talked to except to accept Katie Couric made it into science, mostly through sheer determination. But then we wondered about their early experience in college in graduate school. Did they feel they were being treated differently from their male classmates?
Graham Chedd: Right. Here’s Molly Kemball again from the Sabeti lab. I’d actually asked her if she thought it might be hard being a girl getting into science.
Molly Kemballl: I didn’t feel that way until college, particularly because as I was growing up, there’s a lot of attitude like, “Oh, we’ve, we’ve fixed this problem of women not going into STEM.” Which isn’t entirely true. But I got to college and every time I made a mistake in a science lab or science class, I seem to almost be like penalized or have that used as evidence that I wasn’t good at it in a way that my male peers didn’t seem to have.
Graham Chedd: But you definitely feel it was because you were female that you were singled out as being maybe not doing it right?
Molly Kemball: Yes, I would say so.
Graham Chedd: What, how, what evidence do you have for that?
Molly Kemball: I’m not sure that I have evidence beyond, that’s the way that I felt. And that’s the way you’re treated by frequently it’s male professors in STEM still, which is frustrating.
Graham Chedd: This point that Molly didn’t have any evidence that she was being put down because she was a woman. It was just the way she felt turned out to be a common theme among the young women Sarah and I talked to. Here is Pardis.
Pardis Sabeti: It’s in graduate school my colleagues of mine started to get very depressed because they had this like general sense that they were worthless and they couldn’t figure out why, what most of us perceived was not being told that we couldn’t do it because we’re a woman, but just having people sort of dismiss our ideas or not really listen to them or roll their eyes or just always having a sense of we’re not good enough.
Pardis Sabeti: But it’s the insidious nature of it that is really hard to deal with if you’re not aware of what’s going on. And it’s that thing when you ask Molly like, “What evidence do you have it’s because you’re a woman?” She doesn’t. There’s something that’s just eating at her over and over again. She feels like, “Hmm …” And you can’t pinpoint it and you don’t know, “Is it you and am I being extreme or am I not?”
Allie Stanton: Yeah, I think sort of like other people have alluded to before, it’s kind of difficult to know when you feel like you’re being treated differently part of you wants to attribute that to the fact that you’re a woman, but then part of you is also saying, “Well, maybe I’m being treated this way because like I’m actually not as good.”
Allie Stanton: I imagine that there have been times that I’ve been treated differently for being a woman. But I’ve always been sort of very reluctant to bring that up because I’m worried that their answer will be, “No, it’s not because you’re a woman it’s because you did this thing wrong,” or because you, you are a bad scientist.
Alan Alda: And that’s the same problem. Nancy Hopkins had this, this nagging self doubt that kept it from realizing that it wasn’t Nancy that was coming up short. It was the culture.
Nancy Hopkins: There was this peculiar problem of a kind of invisibility that you seem to be accepted, you seem to be one of the boys, if you like, and yet you weren’t. So at first you think it’s your own fault. And so I thought the answer to this problem is, “You got to do a better experiment.” If you do a Nobel prize winning experiment, then surely, surely somebody will notice.
Alan Alda: We assume things are run in a rational way.
Nancy Hopkins: We thought of science as a meritocracy that everybody has judged absolutely on the merit of their experimental Discovery’s. And I learned that that was not the case. And I’ve figured it out, you can’t really easily figure it out for yourself because it’s always easy to say, “Well, I’m just not good enough.” Or, “I’ve got to do a better experiment.” I figured it out by watching how other women were treated so I could be objective about it.
Alan Alda: That’s so interesting. So if you only relied on your own experience, there would be a tendency, this is how I understand what you’re saying. There’d be a tendency to think, “Maybe it is me. Maybe I am not up to par.”
Nancy Hopkins: Of course.
Alan Alda: But if you watch other women being subjected to that same discrimination you can be more objective and saying, “I can see their work as good. What’s the matter here?”
Nancy Hopkins: That’s what happened. So I began to watch very carefully, “Is it me or is it something in the system?” So I began to watch carefully other women and I’d say, “Okay, she made that Discovery. He made that Discovery. We think he walks on water and she’s kind of invisible. Why is that?”
Alan Alda: Underwater?
Nancy Hopkins: “She’s underwater. Well, how could that be?” And I began to look at women outside of MIT who were in other universities and they weren’t very many. So of course it took a very long time. There were so few women. And so, I waited to see, “Is she really good enough? Is she as good as him and yet he’s respected so much and she’s not?” And finally, after 20 years or 15. It took me 15 years to be absolutely certain that, “Oh, these other women were undervalued.” I still didn’t know if it was true of me.
Alan Alda: Wow.
Nancy Hopkins: And I brought that at 20 years had passed and I was tired of fighting this battle and I said, “That’s it. I cannot do this any longer because …” By then I realized what was happening. I knew a certainty that these women were just as good. We were just as good. We had to work so much harder to be recognized as equal.
Alan Alda: So what was the first step you took?
Nancy Hopkins: I first of course, thought about actually suing MIT which of course I didn’t want to do because I figured that was certainly in my career, but I didn’t know what to do. So, finally desperation, I decided to write to the president of MIT and tell them there’s terrible discrimination in his University and he should fix it. So I wrote this letter and I showed it to a friend, a man. He said, “I hope you’re not fighting to send that. That’s a career stopper right there. That would be the end of you.”
Nancy Hopkins: I thought, I’ll show it to a woman professor who was a colleague. I didn’t know her that well, but I thought … Actually I had so much respect for this woman. She was a brilliant scientist, a brilliant person. “I’ll ask her if this letter is acceptable so I could send this to the president.”
Nancy Hopkins: So, she read this letter and I was watching her read and I thought, “Oh, she’s going to think very badly of me.” Because we thought if you complained to discrimination, it meant you weren’t good enough. But I knew now the truth. I knew that women were undervalued. So, I wrote this letter and she read the letter and she said, “I’d like to sign it and I think we should go and see the president because there’s a real problem here.”
Alan Alda: And you gathered other women to join you in this effort, right?
Nancy Hopkins: Yes.
Alan Alda: Was that difficult to do?
Nancy Hopkins: Yes. I had no idea. I thought I was the only person who had figured out this profound Discovery that women were undervalued. I had thought I was the only person who knew. And then I discovered she knew. And then we looked at each other and said, “Well, maybe other people know too. They figured it out too.”
Nancy Hopkins: We made a list of the tenured women faculty in science at MIT and discovered there were only 15 of these people and like 195 men, 15 tendered women. So, we would go and ask them and see if any of them agreed with us. And if so, maybe they would join our effort. And we realized that if you had a group of women, if many women said there was a problem, then MIT had a problem.
Alan Alda: Do you think it also gave some security to each of them because as a flock you’re not as vulnerable as a single person?
Nancy Hopkins: Yes, absolutely. I think they gave us power, really. And it gave us confidence that what we thought was correct, but none of us said no and we never talked about it.
Alan Alda: And what action did it lead to on the part of the University?
Nancy Hopkins: Well, it was a long story, but we basically asked that we decided not to go to the president, but to go to the dean of the school of science, a man named Bob Birgeneau, who later became the chancellor of Berkeley actually. And present him with our case and we said, “We want to collect the data so we can explain it to you and then you can fix it.” And so he said, “We want to have a committee to collect the data to prove to you what’s happening.”
Alan Alda: So, gathering the other women together was very important. And I think you’ve said that when it was said to you that you should have men on the committee as well you said, “What do we need them for?”
Nancy Hopkins: I said, “I don’t want any men. They don’t get it.” And the Dean said, “You have to have men.” And I said, “Okay, well if you’re going to have to have men give me powerful man. I want men who can do something. I don’t want some weak men. Give me powerful men.” So he gave us these three men and they were amazing. And he was right that we had to have men because who would believe a bunch of women.
Alan Alda: It’s fascinating that Nancy originally and understandably resisted having men on her committee, but it turned out to be crucial in getting her case across to the higher ups at MIT. But one thing, male allies had been a part of the club for a long time and they knew how it worked, and for another they had the power to do something about it, like the men at the very top, when Nancy wrote a short summary of the committee’s report.
Nancy Hopkins: And so I wrote this short summary. It was published in the MIT faculty newsletter and that was endorsed by the president of MIT. And he said, “I read this report, I found it was true and we have this and I endorsed this report.” And he said … This famous quote he made. “I always thought gender discrimination was part perception part reality.
Nancy Hopkins: Now I know reality is the better part of it.” And that quote put it on the front page of the New York Times in the Boston globe. And after that the world changed. It really did change and we were stunned by the reaction that the world … It was a sort of worldwide reaction to this thing.
Alan Alda: Nancy and her colleagues published a report on the status of women in MIT school of science in 1999 and changes followed. Among the most important was the recruitment of women to leadership roles. Today, for instance, five of the eight department heads in the school of engineering are women. And the numbers of tenure and tenure track women went from just 6% to 19%. in the school of science the numbers went from 8% to 19%.
Alan Alda: Another big change was in family leave policy. Incredibly before the report only men took family leave, women knew that taking it could damage their chances of tenure. Then there were the three new daycare centers built on campus, including for the first time daycare for babies.
Nancy Hopkins: Those things really made a difference. Seeing women in the administration, seeing more women, seeing women, having children, daycare on campus, all that kind of stuff. And over time it degraded. So a couple of years ago, women came and said, we need to start the committees because I started them up again, these committees in the schools. So, it’s an ongoing process and we learned that it’s not something you fix at once, just as you can’t tell people once and it’s fixed.
Nancy Hopkins: You have to keep changing the world so it looks different so that women can do these jobs and then we see a lot of women in the job, then we’ll think it’s normal. I mean, people didn’t use to think women could have a child and be a professor at MIT? What were they thinking?
Alan Alda: So numerically, at least in thanks in no small part to the brave work of Nancy Hopkins and her co-conspirators, things are better. Sarah, you’ve been checking out the latest statistics on the number of women in science. What, what have you found?
Sarah Chase: I’ve been going through the national science foundation report from last year, and the the percentage of women in the bio-sciences has increased steadily to where today there are more women than men earning master’s degrees. But things aren’t so great when we look at the physical sciences.
Sarah Chase: There’s been a bit of a percentage increase in engineering and physics, but the numbers are still below quarter of master’s degrees in those fields going to women, and tragically in computer science the numbers have actually declined.
Alan Alda: So, that’s what’s happening now. And you and Graham have been out there talking to the younger generation of women scientists. So, how are they reacting to what they see today?
Graham Chedd: One of the questions I also women and Pardis Sabeti’s lab at the Broad Institute was whether they ever feel, “This just wouldn’t be happening to me if I were a man.” Here’s an eye-opening story from Philomena Eromon who works in a lab in Nigeria studying the Ebola virus.
Philomena Eromon: There was a time at the lab we had like a challenge, like a challenge in math and we’re trying to like work through some solutions and the males were like, “No, this is supposed to be for the guys.” Because they feel majorly they are into like the bioinformatics like is supposed to be like a male thing, not the female thing. Well, the females felt so bad. We actually felt bad and we give them the opportunity but they never came up with like any solution. And we had take off the challenge as a group of women. And eventually we actually came up with like a solution.
Graham Chedd: Did you feel good about that?
Philomena Eromon: Yeah, I did. Just so exciting.
Sarah Chase: And I asked the same question of Ellen De Obaldia in Leslie Vosshall’s lab at Rockefeller.
Ellen DeObaldia: I have a lot of stories, but this is a good one, I think. I was at, let’s say, a conference where I was giving a scientific talk and there was an award for the best presentation. And I gave up my presentation and many people congratulated me on the talk. And then when they were figuring out who gets the awards a faculty member came over to me and said, “You know, I think you gave the best talk, but you have to understand that this …” He’s a man, “Another male PI told me that we can’t give you the award because you’ve just been getting a little too much recognition lately. And so, we’re going to have to spread the waffle a little bit.” And I said, … He wanted me to make him feel better about it.
Ellen DeObaldia: So when I realized what was going on, I said, “This really isn’t okay. It’s a, it’s a defined prize for a specific talk performance. And if I gave the best talk, I should get the award. But how about you make it a tie?” And I just can’t imagine that a man would be asked to take themselves out of the running for an award, which I need for my CV just as much as anybody else.
Graham Chedd: One of the women I talked to in the Sabeti lab wasn’t trained as a scientist, but now a project manager with the labs, West African Partners. Here’s Megan Paré.
Megan Paré: One of our collaborators that I’ve had to work with only via email over the course of several months come to visit. And when they arrived I introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Megan. I’m so glad to to finally get to meet you.” And their response was, “You’re Megan, but you’re such a hard worker. I thought you were a man.”
Megan Paré: Those are some of the kind of overt experiences. And then there’s also the subtler forms of like as mentioned all the time, getting talked over in meetings, getting interrupted, that general sense of a dread of just being dismissed or not taken seriously. I’ve had conversations where I’ve sat down and had a heart to heart about a struggle that I was going through and I’ve been told like, “Oh, well, look at how you dress, you’re snappy dresser. If you didn’t dress that way maybe people would take you more seriously.”
Sarah Chase: There’s this burden that women have that men don’t. It’s what we look like, how we dress. Leslie Vosshall, an extraordinarily accomplished scientist runs a major lab at Rockefeller and yet-
Leslie Vosshall: Throughout my career I’ve been told by both men and women that I don’t look like a scientist, that I’m into fashion so I won’t be taken seriously. I dye my hair blonde and some people think I’m an idiot. And so, of course I keep doing it and it’s happened to me absolutely throughout my career when I was in high school, when I was in college.
Leslie Vosshall: There’s always someone who takes me aside and says, “You don’t dress like a scientist. People will not take you seriously.” And so, this explains why I continue to wear whatever I want and dye my hair or whatever color I want.
Leslie Vosshall: But I think somebody who did take that seriously and did take it to heart, I think it would have like a really direct effect on their confidence as a scientist. And I don’t think that a man will be taken aside and said, “You like fashion too much you can’t be a scientist.”
Graham Chedd: Alan, when you talked to Pardis Sabeti last season about her work helping conquered deadly diseases like Ebola and Lassa fever. Afterwards I was in her lab and I chatted with her a little while and she said this amazing thing that despite her accomplishments, she’s been told that she likes gravitas.
Pardis Sabeti: Absolutely. The issue is that for the vast majority of history of the world is being run by men and they have constructed the world that we live and work in and they’ve defined what are the grounds for success, what are the grounds for gaining respect and admiration? And one of them is having gravitas. And this is an individual who talk to me about the need for me to obtain gravitas as somebody who’s again means very, very well and was very supportive and was trying to help me figure out how to be taken seriously.
Pardis Sabeti: And when that word came up, I fought back against it and I said, “Look at me, I’m never going to have gravitas. I could be 90 years old and nobody will ever give me … gravitas is something I’ll never really attain.” A deep voice is not correlated with a good idea. It’s just that we’re making these links that don’t exist.
Alan Alda: And I guess one of the things some people can’t get over is the range of interests Pardis has as well as being extremely successful in science she’s also the lead singer in a rock band, but a male astrophysicist who is also a rock and roll star doesn’t seem to have a gravitas deficiency. I’m thinking of Brian May, one of the founders of Queen.
Alan Alda: And all too often we see this disparity and we just live with it. Nancy Hopkins touched on this when we talked about her long struggle to understand why women were treated so differently than men in science.
Alan Alda: It’s so interesting to me that discrimination like this can exist. People can know about it, they can talk about it, they can bring it to the attention of the people who can do something about it. And yet it’s still under the radar until something big happens in your case, these articles.
Nancy Hopkins: It was extraordinary. And I agree with you. That’s a fabulous comment. I think that how can we all know these things and yet they persist for so long. I think people didn’t know really about this kind of discrimination, this undervalued … I didn’t know about it. I had to live it for 20 years. What bothers me is now it’s many years later. So now it’s 2019 and we started this 25 years ago.
Alan Alda: And interestingly, as I’ve been thinking about this experience of yours, you came in at a time when feminism was having a really big explosion and it took you 20 years after that to personalize it, to understand it in terms of your own life and the people around you. Even when something gets popular and understandable by many people, it still doesn’t land on us necessarily.
Nancy Hopkins: No, and this is our problem. So, what should we do about this?
Alan Alda: I’m asking you.
Nancy Hopkins: Well, I’m asking you. Because it’s still a problem. I may be wrong, but I believe it comes from what we call unconscious bias. So while I was … 20 years trying to figure out what, “Why are women under valued for equal work?” But meanwhile, psychologist had done experiments, real experiment.
Nancy Hopkins: You take an article, you Xerox it, you put a man’s name on one copy, a woman’s name on the other, you send them out for review. People think the man’s paper is better than the woman’s paper. And both men and women think the man is better.
Alan Alda: Yes. What’s that?
Nancy Hopkins: That is because we all have these same unconscious prejudices. And the problem we face is that still many of my colleagues, I’m afraid, believe that women don’t really belong there. So, example. I could not believe it. You can’t of believe some of these things, but one of colleagues who … The National Academy of Sciences sort of academy that honors people from good science, and she was inducted, which is often the high point or somebody whose career.
Nancy Hopkins: She does to the Academy reception, induction ceremony and there’s a man there and he says, “You know, the quality of the academy is really falling because they’re admitting too many women. We really ought to have two different academies, one for men and one for women.”
Alan Alda: Oh my God. To follow up on Nancy’s point about unconscious bias we talked with Joe Handlesman. She was in president Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and is now at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Handlesman was the lead author of the first study to demonstrate implicit bias in academic science.
Jo Handelsman: Ironically, the reason we did this study was that that was what we were told beforehand. Every time we talked about unconscious bias or implicit bias to scientists, they would say, “Oh, but this couldn’t possibly apply to us because we’re trained to be objective. And so, that that’s not us.” And so, they would admit … Some of them would admit that this might be true of other people but not of them.
Jo Handelsman: And of course, that shows a complete misunderstanding of unconscious versus conscious cognitive processes. But that didn’t phase them. And so we thought, “Well, if we have a study that’s on scientists and we show the same thing maybe it won’t be as strong in effect, but there probably will be an effect then maybe there’ll be convinced, in fact, they’re scientists. So they should be convinced by data.”
Alan Alda: How did it work? What were the mechanics of the study?
Jo Handelsman: We wrote a short resume, just a paragraph about a student who was about to graduate from undergrad with a science major and we asked a series of questions, would the person responding to the survey hire the student as a lab manager? Would they mentor them? Several other questions. And we sent it to academic scientists in biology, chemistry and physics departments at six top universities, three public, three private, geographically distributed across the United States.
Jo Handelsman: And the mechanics were really about as simple as they could have been. And that was what we wanted was a single variable study where the only difference was that half of them received the study or the paragraph about the student with the name Jennifer. And half of them received the name John.
Jo Handelsman: And that was the only difference. So it was one variable and the only thing that could explain differences in their valuation of the student was whether they thought the person was a man or a woman.
Alan Alda: What kind of reactions did that supposed applicant get in terms of, would they be hired? How much would they be paid, were they serious about their work? Did you ask questions like that?
Jo Handelsman: Yeah. So we found that the respondence would be much more likely to hire John than Jennifer. If they hired him they would pay him 15% more than if they hired Jennifer. They were more likely to mentor John, which actually was the result that surprised me the most, and I think has some of the most serious implications. They seem to think their time was better invested in John than in Jennifer.
Jo Handelsman: And I found that to be actually quite devastating because if you think about all the little interactions that faculty have with students over the course of four year undergraduate career, all the mentoring that they do, the length of time they spend answering questions after class for a man or a woman, the advice they give to a student about summer internships or where to apply to graduate school.
Jo Handelsman: And you imagine that every single one of those little interactions is just a little bit less positive for Jennifer than for John. And you add that up over a four year career. It’s a devastating difference.
Alan Alda: So, here’s a big question. How big a difference was there among the women scientists who responded in the male scientists who responded?
Jo Handelsman: Absolutely none. The answers were almost identical on every score between the male and the female faculty. And that’s consistent with all the previous studies on bias that say that when it’s unconscious bias, our own gender or ethnicity doesn’t influence the amount of bias we apply. It’s only our conscious biases that are different between different groups.
Alan Alda: I asked Jo how scientists reacted to the study.
Jo Handelsman: My naive notion was, “Well, if you give them in controvertible data, then of course they’re going to understand this and agree.” And so, that’s why we wanted to run this simple experiment that had only one variable that couldn’t be explained any other way. But boy, they came up with other explanations like, “Well, maybe those weren’t good scientists, so they weren’t being on biased.” Or, “Maybe the names Jennifer and John had biases within them besides gender.”
Jo Handelsman: And when we would tell them that the names had been pre-tested and they were seen to be very average names for men and women nothing phased them. The people who didn’t want to believe it could come up with more explanations than I could have imagined.
Alan Alda: The question rises in my mind is, have you experienced this problem yourself?
Jo Handelsman: You know, for a long time I didn’t. I didn’t believe I was experiencing bias. And I had on the face of it a lot of support from the departments that I had been in. Especially as a faculty member, I had a lot of really warm, supportive colleagues who encouraged my career and encouraged even more importantly the Maverick things that I did. Because I didn’t take all the traditional routes in science.
Jo Handelsman: I developed other interests like this interest in bias. And so, I felt very well supported and it took somebody pointing out to me that, at faculty meetings it was a very routine thing for me to say something and there to be a dead silence. And then for a man to say it 20 minutes later and everyone to turn and say, “Wow, that’s a great idea.” And I didn’t pick it up.
Jo Handelsman: I just thought, “Oh, I’m not articulate.” Or my ideas aren’t as good. I had explanations every time one of my ideas fell flat and it took an observer commenting on that and she said, “You know, that happens. It just about every faculty meeting.” And it was always the same man apparently that she noticed was getting credit for my ideas. And that was the moment when I began to realize, “Oh, all this bias stuff that I’ve been reading about and talking about, maybe it really has had an impact on me.”
Jo Handelsman: But when you’re very successful it’s harder to argue bias. It’s harder to say, “Well, I’ve been shut out of this,” or prevented from doing that. But for me it was much more subtle day to day interactions that I think ultimately took a toll on my career.
Jo Handelsman: But I’ve been extremely happy and I think successful in my career. So, I don’t complain about it the way I think other women should. Other women have faced much more serious bias. I mean, really egregious behaviors. So, I feel very lucky that it hasn’t been as open and as a aggressive bias as many of my colleagues have experienced. But yeah, it’s been there no question about it.
Alan Alda: You had in your case and another woman who was looking out for you when in a way feeding you back the evidence that was not so clear to you at the time. She was a helpful bystander. That’s sounds like something that we ought to encourage one another to do.
Jo Handelsman: I have started doing that, and I think it’s a really effective way to handle bias because it’s so hard to advocate for yourself and it sounds like sour grapes when a person says they didn’t get something because they’re a woman or they’re minority. Whereas if someone else says it for them, it immediately sounds more objective. So therefore it must be more true. And I think we also can combat it together.
Jo Handelsman: And I actually took one very small step in my former department when we started noticing this deal that women would say something and there would be this big dead silence and you’d feel kind of like an idiot that your idea just fell so flat. We decided that if we agreed with each other, we were going to immediately jump in and say, “I agree with Sally. That’s a great idea.”
Jo Handelsman: Because there’s this mob mentality in any group. And so we found that to be extremely effective, and I spread that method wherever I go. I tell women to do that. And sometimes men are as eager as women to help that out. And if you’re listening for it all of a sudden you begin to hear the difference in the way ideas are greeted when they’re presented by men or women and you can really make a difference in how everyone hears them just by verbalizing your own reaction.
Alan Alda: One of the real surprises for me as we dug into this topic of gender bias is the counter intuitive notion that instead of things getting better as women get more recognition and power, things can actually get worse. Here’s Nancy Hopkins.
Nancy Hopkins: This was the other thing that I think was confusing. I think when women are young, if they’re very, very lucky, they find somebody who is a terrific mentor and so they don’t think there’s a problem. But as you go into the field and you rise and you now aren’t the mentee, but you should be the equal that’s when the trouble comes.
Pardis Sabeti: The higher up you go, the more people are challenged and disturbed by your presence. I was just dealing with that right now. People just trying to undermine me left and right. You know, I’ve been described as a faculty as in pertinent and it’s almost too much to get into. But fundamentally it’s very difficult and it continues to be difficult. And again, I think the more … It’s interesting because as I’ve gotten older and further along it almost seems like it’s more obvious. I was told by you know, funders same as Megan, like, “I thought you were man and just walked away from me.” A lot of things like that happen all the time.
Pardis Sabeti: Every time I pitched to fundraise they either dismiss me out of hand, or if they think I did a spectacular job and if I did a truly spectacular job of pitching a vision that’s just unbelievable they asked me to mentor a daughter, a girlfriend that is like, “You are amazing, you are exceptional. Can you mentor my …” I don’t mind. Of course, I don’t mind doing that, but that is literally the best they could possibly think of.
Megan Paré: Yeah. Even if they think the vision is wonderful and they’re paying attention to the content, it’s really engaging. The first thing to pop into their minds isn’t, “Hey, I as a philanthropist and well positioned to realize this vision or to support this financially I’m in some sensitive way.” the first thing that pops into their mind is like, “Hey, I got to link up my undergrad girlfriend with this lady because she’s going places that somebody else is surely funding.” Whereas if it were a man or a group led by a man, it’s like, “Oh, this guy knows what he’s talking about. I’m going to write a check to my buddy.”
Sarah Chase: These sort of put downs or depressingly common, especially when you’re a woman in a gathering that’s predominantly men. And I speak from experience and it came up when I was talking with the women in Leslie Vosshall’s lab. Here’s Krithika Venkataraman.
Absolutely dependent on the situation and the group of men. So I think that is something that has been extremely important for me to be aware of, and kind of gauge when I’d go into a room, what sort of response am I getting? I’ve had situations where the ally ship has been absolutely Philomenal. And when I do speak up, people start to listen and really include me in a conversation. And I’ve also had the total opposite effect where if I speak up and I’m the only woman in the room I’ve had like completely the opposite response and people are like, “Oh, okay. She’s just pulling that feminist card.” And being dismissed. Both of those things absolutely have happened. And it’s just a question of gauging who’s in the room.
Sarah Chase: And yet you persisted.
Leslie Vosshall: I think it’s important to be comfortable making people uncomfortable.
Leslie Vosshall: Yes. I mean, there was a meeting where always somebody had to take notes and I said, “You know, it’s really a cliche that the woman takes notes. I’m not taking notes. You take notes.”
Pardis Sabeti: I was going into a meeting with probably the, you know the people in this room owned as much as half of humanity. I was going to one of these meetings with like the top people and I was, and one of one of these people who themselves as personally wealthy was saying, “I just want to help you. I just think you’re amazing. I think you’re doing spectacular things for the world. What can I help you with?” And I said, “Well, the main thing I really need to do is just fundraise.
Pardis Sabeti: We have this vision, and I’m really excited about that.” And I wasn’t even asking him for money, I was just saying that that’s the kind of thing, “If you can help me.” It’s helped me think about how to fundraise. And he basically was like, “I know this lady,” whose name he couldn’t even remember, “Somewhere in Pennsylvania who’s a very good mentor for women.
Pardis Sabeti: And I think you should talk to her. Let me remind myself who that person is.” And so again, it’s either mentor or be mentored is the best they can do as I’m walking into a meeting that could have transformed my research career. And the sad thing is these people are the ones that mean well, and that’s the best they can come up with. “I have some lady whose name I can’t remember, who likes women and who might be able to mentor you.” Great.
Alan Alda: Maybe the starkest area where women are still vastly underrepresented is in trying to get startup companies funded by venture capitalists. Even while she was turning around the culture at MIT, Nancy Hopkins could see this beginning to happen.
Nancy Hopkins: We went, did all this work in the University. Things got better. Women became presidents of universities, heads of departments. Things never happened. Women could take all this stuff. Meanwhile, in my field, biology, around us grew up the field of biotechnology, which did not exist when I was young. Biology had no applications. Over time, of course, it became a source of Discovery’s that led to all these drugs being developed. And so, the industry called biotechnology started 40 years ago.
Alan Alda: Just so I can understand, Biotechnology means manipulating molecules or genes or what?
Nancy Hopkins: Yes. Using basic understanding of biology to create drugs to treat people, to make biomedical Discovery’s for making treatments for cancer and drugs and diseases of all kinds. And so, also there was a shift from major drug companies to these startup companies which come out of universities. So, Discovery’s get made in a University.
Nancy Hopkins: And then the faculty, the Discovery’s patented and then the patent is licensed to a company that starts outside the University, often involving the faculty members who were making these Discovery’s. So, at the time this industry was starting MIT shared an office with a man who was starting such a company. And those men had been recruited by businessmen. It wasn’t scientists who initially had this idea to go and stop these companies.
Nancy Hopkins: It was businessman. And they came and they recruited these guys out of Harvard and MIT and various gun places. And this man said to me, we were good friends. He said, “I’d really like to ask you to join, but I can’t because businessmen don’t work with women.” So I said, “Oh, well, I understand that. Of course everyone knows that. Don’t feel bad about it.” So he goes, starts some company with some soon a multi-billion dollar company and so forth, fine.
Nancy Hopkins: But time passes, and this becomes a major industry that now surrounds the University was surrounded by biotech companies, and many faculty participate in. But about five, six years ago, a woman from Harvard business school comes to see me. She says, “I just saw a list of 100 people who were supported by venture capital to start companies in Boston.
Nancy Hopkins: There were 100 names on the list. There was one woman.” So biology is a field that has half women PhDs, has for many decades, half, 50% of the students are women. And yet here’s an industry that grew up around us that’s excluded women for 40 years from the time it began.
Alan Alda: It’s amazing.
Nancy Hopkins: It’s amazing. So you say, “How do you fix the problem?” So, we’re working through the American Academy. We’ve engaged with venture capitalists and the deans of science and engineering at MIT, the Sloan School of Business School. And we learned that venture capitals are 5% women, is partners with venture capital.
Alan Alda: And how much are they influenced by unconscious bias? Do they actually make an effort to invest in women’s businesses?
Nancy Hopkins: Well, we learned that if a woman is making … From a woman who has done this, may start a company. If you want to make a pitch to a venture capitalist, you have to take your male students with you to the pitch because they can’t really hear a woman.
Alan Alda: Oh my God.
Nancy Hopkins: We’re talking 2019. We’re not talking-
Alan Alda: All this against the background of how things have changed.
Nancy Hopkins: Well, they have changed because-
Alan Alda: They have, but they need to change a lot more.
Nancy Hopkins: So I’m saying to myself, “Why don’t you just include the women? Here’s a list of women. Because now you have the problem. The women aren’t experienced in this activity because they were excluded for 40 years.”
Alan Alda: Exactly.
Nancy Hopkins: And so, what I’ve learned is, when you exclude a group of people, let’s say, African Americans, we’re in this country. From an enterprise for 40 years you can’t just snap your fingers. So, how do we fix that? We have to go fix this problem. We can’t just keep talking about it.
Alan Alda: Another woman who’s doing more than just talking about the issue of women being shut out or venture capital is Melinda Gates. I talked with her about the problem on this season’s first episode of Clear and Vivid.
Melinda Gates: Today, if you want to create, say, a new application, a new piece of technology, generally you start by creating it and getting funding. You get venture capital funding. Well, in the United States, less than 2% of venture capital funding goes to a woman’s business. Less than 1% goes to a person of color. So right there there’s already a big barrier gate put down in a woman’s face and there are many reasons for that, but we have to break through that.
Melinda Gates: We have to start funding ideas, women’s ideas for business because guess what? They have ideas that sometimes men quite often don’t see. Men don’t predominantly take care of the children and yet there could be fabulous caregiving apps that help a woman find a last minute babysitter. If she has a child who has dyslexia, go online and find resources for that.
Melinda Gates: Go and find somebody that can help her. But we don’t fund those types of businesses because men don’t understand that part of the market very well. And they fund what they’re used to knowing can be successful. And so, they fund other male led businesses.
Alan Alda: One of the things that you talk about in the book, the importance of male allies to work side by side with them and that kind of thing.
Melinda Gates: I think we need several things. Absolutely male allies are a part of this. The only way we’re going to change society is for the enlightened men. I know many of them. You probably know many yourself. The enlightened men to help women more, to use their voice to stop another man if he’s bullying a woman. To stop a man, if he’s re-explaining her point in a meeting, and to sponsor and lift women up.
Melinda Gates: We know that men in companies have a huge network and at a 70% rate they get sponsored in a business by another man inside the corporation. The women have very few sponsors. So that alone is one thing a man can do right then is decide, “I’m going to sponsor some women for jobs.” And not just mentor, sponsor. In the venture capital community we just have to break the lock.
Melinda Gates: And that means actually moving money, having funds that will fund women led businesses. So, we have mentored women until the cows come home about how to present their ideas in venture capital space and they’re still not getting funding. So, we just finally have to move money. And so, we’re starting to see funds raise up, they expect a really good return, but they over index for women led businesses. When we start doing that and men start seeing that money’s left on the table, these businesses are successful, they’ll start to move in that direction.
Alan Alda: You know, having male allies came up with Melinda Gates and it turned out to be important for Nancy Hopkins too at MIT.
Sarah Chase: Yeah. On the the subject came up also in my conversations with Leslie Vosshall and her team at Rockefeller. And I decided to switch the topic a little bit because I wanted to know a little bit more about female mentorship. And I was pleasantly surprised by some of the answers that Leslie and her team gave. So here are Leslie’s thoughts first followed by Krithika Venkataraman.
Leslie Vosshall: So what’s ironic is that I was only had the benefit of male mentors. So my uncle, my PhD advisor, Mike Young, my postdoc advisor, Richard Axel, all amazing men. So, they were important because they believed in me, they encouraged me, they pushed me, they had high expectations. It was an equal amount of praise and criticism. And they’ve been enormously important in getting me to where I am.
Leslie Vosshall: And so, my job right now is to pay it forward to make sure that everybody who comes into my lab I encourage them, I push them. I give praise and criticism and in some sort of an optimal ratio to get the absolute best out of people.
Krithika V.: I had a similar experience to Leslie. All of my mentors so far in science before Leslie have been male mentors and they’ve all been Philomenal. Part of it I think is that they have been very open to the idea that they are there as much to train young scientists as they are to be doing research and contributing to science. And so, that means the culture is open to asking questions.
Krithika V.: It’s open to you going out and sharing the work that you do with other people so that you become better at communicating it. And I think having a mentor who’s both open as well as available to answer questions, that doesn’t mean that they’re constantly there and like watching everything you do. But it does mean that they’ve got your back, basically.
Sarah Chase: And here’s Ellen De Obaldia.
Ellen DeObaldia: I think when I was younger I was more … It felt more comfortable for me to work for a woman, but now I have a much more mature perspective on this that I have to … There are mostly men at very high levels in science, there’s under representation of women. So, it’s important to be able to work with everybody. And in choosing my mentor in graduate school, I would say the most important thing for me was to find somebody that you really like to talk to about science.
Ellen DeObaldia: You’re going to be doing that a lot. You have to be able to communicate with them. And there were people that I got along well with very well with personally, but when we tried to talk about science we just talked past each other and we weren’t on the same wavelength.
Ellen DeObaldia: So, you know, in choosing my PhD mentor in Leslie side, that was really important on the interview even for me to know that we could communicate effectively because communication is a huge challenge in any field of work and especially science.
Leslie Vosshall: How do you achieve good mentoring? You need to figure out who you’re mentoring, the unique requirements that the person has when they come into your door. It’s not one size fits all. Not everybody had the same prior expectations. Some women were discouraged from being scientists some were encouraged. And so, to get everybody into the same place, I need to figure out, what kinds of bad experiences do they have? Do they lack in confidence?
Leslie Vosshall I would say in general women are much less confident than men. And so, that’s a really actionable thing that I can work on. Women generally are shyer about giving talks, shy or about asking questions. And so, I work really hard on getting all of my trainees. The women need more help than the men and becoming super self confident in presenting their work.
Leslie Vosshall: Some of the men also need assistance there. But just in general, the way that girls and boys are socialized as they grow up, lack of self confidence is a female malady that men have much less of.
Nancy Hopkins: We see at MIT that this is one of the biggest problems in faculty talk about it a lot. And that is young woman student comes in and says, “I am very concerned about my grade and this course.” And they’re doing very well. They are getting a B. And some guy comes in and says, “I got this one covered.” And he’s getting a C. Why is that?
Alan Alda: There is that study that show that men tend to be very confident about their ability when in fact they don’t have that much ability. And it doesn’t apply across the board. I mean, there are men who are not confident and women who are very confident.
Nancy Hopkins: But we do see that different. So many faculty remark on it about the students and it’s unrelated to how well they’re doing.
Alan Alda: You know, one of the major goals we have at the Alda Center for Communicating Science is to boost confidence by improving the communication skills of both women and men. And we’re encouraging participants in our workshops to stay in touch with each other after the workshops are over. Right?
Sarah Chase: Yeah, that’s right. One of the things I love about the workshops that I go to have for women or for women in science, is that we are encouraged to build up our networks afterward to connect with colleagues. We do things like WhatsApp with each other and share pictures and talk about our experiences, and we find we find allies both male and female who can help us I think with our goals and sort of our needs for the future.
Sarah Chase: And even when I talked with the women from Leslie Vosshall lab, they’re also finding strength and confidence boosting when they stay in touch with their female colleagues.
Graham Chedd: The importance of female colleagues was obviously critical to Nancy Hopkins when she was beginning her revolution at MIT, and they were few and far between. I bet she wished she had Facebook and WhatsApp back in those days. It would’ve made finding those few female colleagues much easier.
Sarah Chase: That’s right. And here’s Leslie Vosshall.
Leslie Vosshall: That’s a completely generational thing. I was really lucky. By the time I enrolled in graduate school we were already at 50/50, so half of my amazing classmates in graduate school were women, and I continued to draw upon those relationships. I try to have coffee or lunch with a woman colleague at least once a month. It’s really important A peer colleague that you can kind of go over the problems that you have professionally, personally.
Leslie Vosshall: It was much harder for women in previous generations because they were the only one. And so then, I think it was an incredibly isolating thing to be a woman in science in past generations. It is still isolating at my level. So, although 50% of our graduate students are female and probably 40% of the postdoctoral fellows are female, the numbers drop really drastically.
Leslie Vosshall: So, my faculty peers, it’s between 10 and 20% depending on how you count that. So you really have to actively work to maintain constant connection to other women scientists.
Sarah Chase: And you, Ellen?
Ellen DeObaldia: I’m lucky to have a couple of friends from graduate school who are postdocs and new faculty members in the New York City area. So, we actually get together to practice talks practice for job interviews with each other. We’ll read each other’s grants and provide feedback and we call it girls club and we meet sometimes on Saturday even just to have time to do it. But I think it’s really been really helpful.
Alan Alda: The one topic we haven’t explored yet, and it’s the one I guessed it’s gained the most attention in recent years is sexual harassment. Nancy Hopkins told us something very interesting about the time she dropped in not long ago at MIT to talk to the person who was in charge of monitoring progress and preventing harassment on the campus.
Nancy Hopkins: I went and had lunch him about a month ago because was I was curious what he thought about the fact that it was back full and it seemed like to progress and he said he wasn’t at all surprised. He said, first of all, he said the people who were most resistant to change were the faculty. The people with the most power. And second of all, he said, he assumed if you stopped doing what he did, which was keep it on the front burner all the time, it would go right back right back.
Alan Alda: Right back.
Nancy Hopkins: And I asked him if they did a survey of undergraduates at that time, how many undergraduates had been sexually harassed? One in four.
Alan Alda: One in four.
Nancy Hopkins: I was shocked.
Alan Alda: We’re both sitting here with our mouth open.
Nancy Hopkins: I was completely shocked. Now I think it’s down to one in five. So there is progress. It’s progress.
Graham Chedd: We didn’t focus on sexual harassment in my visit with a Sabeti Lab, but one of the women there, Megan Paré, had a wonderfully cynical observation I can’t resist including.
Megan Paré: Even in recent years, are there headlines generated by a certain Nobel Prize winner saying that women don’t belong in the laboratory because they cause problems for men. Which just the fact that we have someone in such a prestigious point emboldened to say these things out loud as if they’re just common knowledge and cold hard facts it’s outrageous.
Alan Alda: Do you mean that somehow that women are distracting in the lab?
Megan Paré: Yeah. Like you can’t be in a foxhole with a lady because then we’re going to lose the war.
Nancy Hopkins: I think it’s a really tough call about the sexual harassment thing. People say, “Why didn’t they go and do something?” They don’t go and tell somebody because they’ll be worse off if they do obviously. That’s why they don’t tell. Because there’ll be blamed or nobody will do anything, and people will forever remember them as the person who complains.
Nancy Hopkins: So, generally career wise, they’re better off not to say anything and that’s a problem. And I think the other thing, even women have the concern of the unfit. That somebody will be falsely accused, their career will be destroyed. I think, what is the correct punishment for this behavior?
Alan Alda: And how do you stop it early on without looking like you’re making a big deal out of nothing? To me this is partly a communication problem because the first crossing of the line, which could be excused as an innocent gesture, how do you make clear where the lines are without making it worse for yourself?
Nancy Hopkins: You know, you look back on your own life and how you dealt with it yourself.
Alan Alda: How did you deal with that?
Nancy Hopkins: Well, this is about the Me Too has been fascinating, because you can see how the generations have changed this whole issue. I think when we were young, when I went in the workplace, I saw other things happened and I said, “Well, you put men and women in the workplace together. What are they expecting to happen? This is biology. This is life.” So I just thought it was unavoidable.
Nancy Hopkins: But, then I look back on what happened myself and I had a couple of bad experiences and I certainly wouldn’t have told anybody until I found out in one case it affected a student and then I went immediately and talked about but would never have gone just for myself because of the consequences of doing so.
Alan Alda: So, when sexual harassment is happening or on the verge of happening, what does the woman do or say? I asked Joe Handlesman.
Jo Handelsman: One of the things that I’ve found women say most often is that they don’t feel comfortable challenging a man because they’re afraid they’re going to offend him. And I think we just have to get past that. And I have found recently that even though I’m of this now mature age called a senior faculty member and all of that, I still have trouble standing up to men.
Jo Handelsman: And I have a colleague who likes to kiss me when he comes into my off office and I didn’t know how to deal with it. And I’m talking recent history here and I’ve been dealing with this issue now for 30 years, and I did not know how to do it. And it made me realize just how in trained and entrenched the behaviors are that women are brought up with to not offend men and not stand up for the behaviors that just are not acceptable and say that’s not acceptable.
Jo Handelsman: I finally did find a way and I was so pleased that it actually got a fine reaction from the man and he wasn’t offended because hopefully I will remind others of that, that sometimes men are happy to be told how they should behave and how they shouldn’t behave. So, I think honesty has got to be a bigger part of all of our interactions.
Alan Alda: So I have a question, pardon me. My question is, where did he want to kiss you on the cheek or the lips? And the other question is, how did you get him to stop?
Jo Handelsman: It was on the cheek, so it wasn’t deeply offensive, but it was in that gray area that if I haven’t seen a colleague that I’m very fond of for a long time, I will very often hug them. They’ll often hug me. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s different. Kisses are a little different, even if they’re on the cheek and it’s a little different when it’s on a weekly basis.
Jo Handelsman: How I got him to stop was I made a joke about it being a very European habit. He happens to be of European origins. And I said, “I know it’s very charming and very European to greet with kisses, but it just doesn’t work in an environment where I’m working so hard to hold people to a high standard of respectful behavior.”
Alan Alda: And he had a positive reaction?
Jo Handelsman: Yeah. He said, “Yep, I know we’re not in Canada or Europe, so I’ll stop doing it.” And I thought that was just wonderful.
Alan Alda: This question of how to handle unwanted attention from a male colleague came up in the conversation I had last season with the scientist and bestselling author of the book Lab Girl, Hope Jahren. I remember reading or hearing in an interview that you have advised a fellow female scientists on what to do if they get a letter or an email from a male colleague.
Alan Alda: Sometimes somebody in a superior position to them on whom they depend for a recommendation or their thesis advisor, somebody like that. And they suddenly get an email saying, “Here is what I’m feeling about you. You’re stuck with my feelings. I can’t get you out of my mind.” What do you suggest when somebody gets an email like that?
Hope Jahren: So, there’s nothing I can say that’s a for sure cure for what’s going on. There’s legal considerations, document everything, keep copies of it, start a diary. It is useful to fire back right away and say, “I don’t feel this way about you, and this communication is a problem for me at the workplace.” Because later on, if you file a more formal complaint, it always comes up, “Why didn’t you say something?
Hope Jahren: Did he know you didn’t like it? Was it all fun and games until you got spurned,” and dah, dah, dah. And so, it is useful to be able to document the unwanted-ness of this interaction because sometimes it does take a while for something to happen. I mean, if there was an answer, if there was a way to fix it, we wouldn’t have it.
Hope Jahren: So, it’s tricky. It’s easy to bring these things down to the individual level. “What did he do? What did she say when he did it,” or whatever. But it’s important to acknowledge that there are really large scale institutional interactions at play. I’ve personally seen how universities close rank and stand together against somebody who is having a hard time being harassed. You know, you can document everything you want, you can keep whatever diary you want, but if you’re an institution that is determined to overlook this kind of thing, that’s what’s going to happen.
Sarah Chase: One valuable approach to the problem of sexual harassment did come up in my talk with Krithika from the Vosshall lab. And this involves providing understanding for the target of the harassment. So the person experiencing the harassment needs better support.
Krithika V.: When a sexist remark or a racist remark or any kind of derogatory remark is made towards somebody, all of the onus is put on that person to call out whoever made that remark. And I think that’s extremely unfair. It’s the same thing with harassment reporting. It’s always up to the person to report harassment.
Krithika V.: When you are at a seminar and somebody makes a sexist comment towards you, when you’re asking a question, if I’m the one to tell that person, “Actually this isn’t okay to put me down in front of everybody else.” That’s going to have a completely different effect too if a male scientist in power says, “Actually, don’t talk to this student in this way.” And I think that seldom happens.
Krithika V.: And I understand very much that colleagues maintain relationships, and this is at every level, but some kind of training or some kind of system where you don’t have to call that person out in public, but having a system where people feel responsible to call people out regardless of who they are, and not leaving all of it up to the person who is receiving these unpleasant comments.
Sarah Chase: And here’s Ellen.
Ellen DeObaldia: So, thinking about the Me Too Movement, I think it’s just about time that people are called out for behavior that everybody knows is not okay. We shouldn’t have to rely on a whisper network to avoid certain bad actors. And I think that tremendous amounts of resources are put in the hands of people who lead labs and mentoring people as part of their responsibility and creating a safe environment should be part of what they’re evaluated on.
Ellen DeObaldia: Otherwise, you’re just flushing money down the toilet as you invest tremendous amounts of time, money, effort, training women in particular. And then having them lose their nerve basically because of accumulative amount of indignities and insults that happen over time. That is a waste of investment and is keeping us from carrying diseases.
Ellen DeObaldia: And it makes me furious to think that petty disagreements in a lab or a PI that’s a bully can keep someone from advancing down the road to a cure. We should have a much more collaborative scientific enterprise than we currently do.
Graham Chedd: Now to that end, I was intrigued by something Leslie said to you, Sarah, about the way speakers and panelists are chosen those scientific meetings.
Leslie Vosshall: It’s quite typical that someone draws up a list of potential speakers for seminar series. Again, if you’re a 10 to 20% female faculty drawing up the list, you’ll have 80 to 90% or 100% of the names on the list be male. It’s the job of somebody in the room to say 80% of these names are men. Are there any women in this field?
Leslie Vosshall: And then all of a sudden names start burbling up. So, I think that that’s an important point where you intervene and say, “Why haven’t we invited any women? Why does this panel at this conference only have men on it?” So, I think that’s an an easy place where you can intervene. Half the time people are doing it on purpose.
Leslie Vosshall: Half the time they’re just unaware that they look at the list and say, “Oh yeah, you’re right. There are no women on the list.”
Graham Chedd: And this does seem to be something scientific societies are trying to tackle. Nature magazine just came out with an analysis of what are being called Man for instance, in which the panel are predominantly men.
Sarah Chase: I guess the infamous mammals.
Graham Chedd: The infamous mammals. And there does seem to be some improvement as a result of this effort. And neuroscience for instance, the number of female panelists almost doubled between 2011 and 2019 and the effort to dilute mammals has had a major boost from the director of the NIH, Francis Collins.
Graham Chedd: He’s announced that if invited to speak on any panel that doesn’t have a fair gender distribution, and I quote, “I will respectfully or not so respectfully decline and not come.”
Alan Alda: I think we’ve learned a lot from the women who’ve been on the show today, but the issue is still out there. What do we do about it? I think they summed it up really nicely.
Sarah Chase: So here are some final thoughts. First from Leslie Vosshall.
Leslie Vosshall: The status of women in science has been improving with every generation. It used to be that women couldn’t be scientists then they were the only scientists, but they were not able to get permanent positions. Then getting a permanent position that having half of your classmates be female. It’s getting better every generation and my hope in the future is that my approach, and the approach of many other successful mentors to have high expectations, and give consistent encouragement lead to the future where half of the scientists in the world are female and half of the faculty at universities are female.
Leslie Vosshall: I think it’s an entirely achievable goal if you have high expectations and encourage women to stick with it. All we need to do is to keep the 50% number continuing. Why can’t 50% of professors be female?
Leslie Vosshall: I don’t understand it. 50% of the people earth are female. 50% of the graduate students, 50% of the high school students, 50% of the college students. Why do only 10% of the women in the world who want to be professors be professors? It’s ridiculous. You can fix the problem overnight by just putting some effort into the goal of having 50% of all University professors be female and then we’re done.
Leslie Vosshall: We don’t have to worry about the pipeline or the glass ceiling. Just do it. There’s talent everywhere. There’s amazingly talented women who just being actively discouraged from continuing in science after they finished their postdoc is just something … It’s not a hard problem. Stop discouraging women from staying in the business.
Graham Chedd: And here’s Pardis Sabeti.
Pardis Sabeti: It’s tough cause you want the world to turn to see the things that the way you see them. But you also have to get to that position of power. So, there’s been a lot of times in my career, many times where some uncomfortable things that happened to me and experiences that I’ve had where I thought I’m out. But you realize that you have to do it.
Pardis Sabeti: Because if you don’t do it, if you just another woman who steps out to fight the system and say, “It’s all corrupt and all wrong,” and everything, they’re winning because you’re another person who didn’t achieve her dreams, and it didn’t get to a place of power. So, ultimately if you want to see the world change you have to stay in it. And that’s why I’m still in the game.
Sarah Chase: And the last word from the pioneer of this story comes from Nancy Hopkins.
Alan Alda: I asked her about the fact that she often seems to refer to changes that have taken place that are positive. And it sounds like she doesn’t want to see people discouraged by the fact that we haven’t achieved it all yet.
Nancy Hopkins: Yes, thank you. Thank you so much for bringing that up because it’s so easy to forget when it isn’t perfect how far we’ve come. The progress is unbelievable. I think what’s surprising is it isn’t complete, but it is spectacular. Here I am sitting at this table and I see Susan Hock field name here. The idea that a woman could be president of MIT in my lifetime was not imaginable. It’s not imaginable.
Nancy Hopkins: And here I’m saying Susan and Susan Hockfield became the president of MIT and next week she’s stepped down across, we’ve had an ex-president, but next week they’re dedicating this beautiful space at MIT, it will be called Hockfield court. And I saw this message came across by email from the president, provost, and I cried. I thought, “Wow. In my lifetime.”
Alan Alda: I hope everyone listening has been as moved as we’ve been by the voices we’ve heard in this episode, and that we’ll all keep at it until we can say with Nancy, “Wow. In my lifetime.” I know we’ve all learned a lot doing this episode. I wonder if it might be a good idea to sort of summarize what we picked up from this. Well, how about you Sarah?
Sarah Chase: A lot of the things I learned I spoke primarily with the women from Leslie Vosshall’s lab. What I learned from Krithika in particular was providing support for the woman who happens to be the target of something that’s sexual harassment, and making sure that if somebody comes forward that their voice is heard.
Sarah Chase: From Hope Jahren, we definitely learned that it’s important if something happens to you that you document, document, document, that you keep a record of this and that you report it right away and that you’ve got a trail around it.
Graham Chedd: I hope that men listen to this show because I was shocked by the very obvious distress that a lot of the young women expressed of their experience in the lab. I mean, I was really taken aback by how bad it still is, even if it’s subtle and the man should realize that. That’s where a little empathy comes in handy. What is this person going through?
Alan Alda: I think, as you said Graham, I think it’s very hard to listen to the testimony from these women and not feel some sense of their pain, some understanding of the discomfort that they feel in small ways all day long and sometimes in big ways.
Graham Chedd: My message to men is stop being jerks.
Sarah Chase: Increase your own accountability with one another. If you see behavior towards a woman that you do not approve of, take the guy aside and say so. Tell him to do what’s right. Don’t just watch and be a shrinking violet yourself, but call him out. And women also need to learn the idea of collaboration as opposed to just being competitive with one another too.
Sarah Chase: I love Leslie Vosshall and her lab because that was what she was taking action to do. She was literally creating an environment and so was Pardis. They were creating environments for their postdocs and for the women who were coming in where they felt like they were wanted, that they are needed. and that they’re making a huge difference.
Alan Alda: One of the things I picked up from Nancy Hopkins, which sounded really important to me was, it wasn’t a case of one woman fighting the whole system by herself. She had allies. She had female allies, she had male allies. People who together could form a cohort that could get something done to one person alone couldn’t do.
Graham Chedd: The other thing that I think was really a surprise to me, we’ve mentioned it a couple of times is that things don’t get better. They get worse, if anything, for women as they achieve more senior positions.
Alan Alda: Yeah. I was thinking of this just a few minutes ago. I was thinking things don’t get better once and for all. You have to keep at it. You have to keep at it. You have to keep digging into it all over again. But it’s so much like washing herself everyday. You don’t wash yourself once and say, “Well, I got rid of those germs now I’m fine.” It’s a constant struggle because you’re dealing with something that’s so entrenched.
Alan Alda: It’s not easily removed once and for all. And I think what’s been shown by the voices we’ve heard is that help is really good when it’s really helpful and I think anybody who wants to be helpful has an obligation to find out how they can be helpful, what’s really needed. We need to listen, which is really the theme of all our shows.
Alan Alda: I’d like to personally thank all the women who made this episode possible. Pardis Sabeti, Alexandra Ali Stanton, Molly Campbell, Megan Paré, Philomena Eromon, Leslie Vosshall, Maria Ellena De Obaldia, Krithika Venkataraman, Nancy Hopkins, Hope Jahren, Jo Handlesman, Katie Couric, and Melinda Gates.
Sarah Chase: And I quickly want to go back and mention a report from the National Academies of Science and their website address is sites.nationalacademies.org/shstudy. And I’d also recommend visiting leanin.org which is Sheryl Sandberg’s foundation and they’ve worked really closely with McKinsey on their research and they’ve created a wide range of of resources and tools for women including thousands of Lean In circles around the world.
Sarah Chase: And if you’re not part of a Lean In circle, that’s something that you might want to consider joining. girlup.org has training programs for younger women. Another one I really love is the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and they are our incredible resource because they’re working very hard to make sure that if you can see it you can be it, and their website is seejane.org.
Sarah Chase: And last but certainly not least, there’s If/Then, which is a campaign to inspire the next generation of female STEM leaders, and I’ve been to several of their events this year with colleagues from the all the center and I highly recommend them. You can find more details at ifthenshecan.org.
Alan Alda: This has been eye opening for me and I think for all three of us here. I hope it has been for you listening and I hope we all put down our iPhones or walk away from our laptops and do something.
This has been Clear and Vivid, at least I hope so. My thanks to Discovery for being our presenting sponsor this season. All the income from the ads you hear go to the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.
Alan Alda: Just by listening to this podcast, you’re contributing to the better communication of science, so thank you. For more information about the Alda Center, please visit aldacenter.org. This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producers, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula. Our tech guru is Allison Costin. Our publicist is Sarah Hill.
Alan Alda: You can subscribe to our podcast for free at Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. For more details about Clear+Vivid and to sign up for my newsletter, please visit alanalda.com. You can also find us on Facebook and Instagram at Clear and Vivid, and I’m on Twitter @alanalda. Thanks for listening. Bye, bye.
Alan Alda: Next in our series of conversations, I talked with Alan Zweibel and Frank Santopadre, two men who have spent their lives finding the funny in the meaningful and the meaningful in the funny.
Alan Zweibel: A sense of humor is not only jokes, but it’s a mindset. So if your mind is in a place where nothing is funny or nothing makes you smile, what’s the point?
Frank Santopadr: Going back to when I would teach comedy students or young standup’s, they thought that it was about the jokes. “How do I get the laughs?” It’s not about the jokes, it’s about connecting. Start with that before you get onto, “How am I going to make these people laugh?” Get them to pay attention.
Alan Alda: Alan Zweibel and Frank Santopadre, next time on Clear and Vivid.