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Levelling the playing field

There are concrete ways to address the obstacles that face women and people from minority groups in science.

The numbers have changed little in recent years. More white men work in the basic sciences than do either women or minorities, and they advance more quickly to higher positions. Several speakers sounded this refrain at the mid-February annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Illinois. They noted that these trends continue to taint the international science community but also offered concrete suggestions for mitigating the disparity.

At a career workshop, Robert Fefferman, dean of physical sciences at the University of Chicago, said that both women and minorities must network more broadly. It's comforting and easier to stay within one's peer group, he noted, but doing so limits chances for visibility and advancement. “Overcome your shyness,” he said. “Break through the temptation to stay with people who think like you.”

At the same session, Catherine Cardelús, assistant professor of biology at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, also encouraged participants to search for ways to get exposure and recognition. “You need to get your name out there,” she said. “Walk up to people. Cold call. Do whatever it takes.” Fefferman warned, however, that joining every possible committee or board isn't necessarily the best idea. “You'll make an impact,” he said. “But they will expect you to do as good or better [in your work] as people who aren't on a committee.”

Women, especially, must guard against the 'impostor syndrome', characterized by the inability to internalize one's accomplishments, instead attributing them to good luck or timing. Studies show more women than men do this, Cardelús said, adding that it helps to have female advisers and mentors who can empathize with such issues as the difficulty of long hours in the lab during pregnancy or the responsibilities of child care. These people can provide a shoulder to lean on and guide one down the thorny path of postdoc-dom and early career.

Still, little of this will make a difference if one's work is below par, speakers cautioned. “Your science,” Cardelús said, “has to be excellent.”

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Kaplan, K. Levelling the playing field. Nature 458, 111 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7234-111a

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