Three suggestions for me to help empower women in science

Written by: C. Titus Brown

Primary Source: Living in an Ivory Basement

A recent visiting speaker, Dr. Sinead Collins from Edinburgh, mentioned in passing during her talk that she was particularly interested in mentoring and empowering women in science. I am also interested in this, but as a male in a position of power I’m wary of preaching to women on the topic of sexism and have had a hard time figuring out what to do. Since Sinead was in town for a few days, I took the opportunity to ask her for her top 3 suggestions for what I could do. We spent about half an hour talking about it, and I have to say I really enjoyed it!

These are my summary of her suggestions, transcribed (and probably misunderstood) by me. Polite comments, extensions, and disagreements welcome; others will be plonked.

  1. Encourage everyone to finish their thoughts without interruption, and encourage interrupters to notice that they are interrupting (and stop).

    Free-flowing conversations in lab meetings and other scientific interactions can include people interrupting each other (generally with enthusiasm, admittedly ;). This may be offputting or demoralizing to junior people, or people who haven’t developed a robust sense of self-confidence yet. One way to help junior people develop self-confidence is to make sure that they get to complete their thoughts before someone else speaks. For example, if someone interrupts, as the lab head, stop them and ask the person they interrupted if they had completed their thought. This encourages the interrupted to be vocal, and also alerts the interrupter that they are being rude.

    (While this isn’t specific to women or URM, some young women are more polite and/or more hesitant about challenging interruptions.)

  2. Show up.

    As a male authority figure, participate! Show up to meetings about sexism and gender inequity; join committees and panels if there is room; be aware that the more senior a woman gets, the more likely she is to be swamped by the need of gender-balanced panels to have senior women on them, and try to help out with other committees as much as you can.

  3. Mentor young women to deal with the world as it is, in the hope that they may change the world that will be.

    Double standards and sexism exist today, so plan accordingly. For example, if you have tattoos, consider covering them up for a first meeting, so that the tattoos will not distract either negatively or positively. In some ways this is pandering to a double standard, but there’s no doubt the double standard exists and could affect people’s thinking; pick your battles.

    More generally, armor your female students to face the world they will need to live in. Discuss issues like imposter syndrome, the need to speak clearly and forcefully and not back down in the face of occasionally aggressive questioning, career decisions around marriage and children, etc.

From my perspective, these are good specific things for me to do.

Any other thoughts or ideas?


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C. Titus Brown
C. Titus Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. He earned his PhD ('06) in developmental molecular biology from the California Institute of Technology. Brown is director of the laboratory for Genomics, Evolution, and Development (GED) at Michigan State University. He is a member of the Python Software Foundation and an active contributor to the open source software community. His research interests include computational biology, bioinformatics, open source software development, and software engineering.