Women in science: Is the leaky pipe actually a valve?
The exciting news keeps growing. I am sending beneficial nematodes, roundworms, International Space Station. Positive results from two reputable independent laboratories keep coming in. Recently, we showed that nematode pheromones improve beneficial nematodes efficacy. It is a proven technology now. Two years ago, it was an idea, funded by USDA-SBIR Phase I grant. However, this success has not come easy. It was the spring of 2015 when I decided to fully commit to my startup after 185 faculty applications and more than 200 industry scientist applications with no offers.
I still had this nagging concern that something was wrong. After all, I didn’t get any offer out of ~400 applications. Just based on the number of applications, I should have gotten at least one offer for a permanent Ph.D. level position. Something just did not feel right. So, I started reviewing what could have been a problem. In my previous article in Science Careers, I wrote about successful faculty applications. I knew that I had it right because multiple postdocs who used my guidance for their application packages were invited for interviews and offered faculty positions in US institutions. To figure out the problem, I ventured out a little further.
What about the “leaky pipe”? Based on the leaky pipe myth, women leave science after earning a Ph.D. because they want to have a family. Since they have babies, the thinking goes, they are not committed to science anymore. My commitment to science and my productivity did not change when I had kids. Is there any possibility that I may have been forced into the leaky pipe against my will? If yes, this begs the next question, “Is the leaky pipe more of a valve? Are women pushed out of science because they have kids?” I know a number of women with and without kids. The ones I know with kids were not offered faculty or research scientist positions. Finally, I had to ask, “Am I being discriminated?”.
The touchy subject of discrimination has many colors and flavors. The first one in my list is the well-documented gender discrimination against women in both academia and industry. The second is ethnic and religious discrimination. Both my first name (Fatma) and last name (Kaplan) have ethnic and religious associations. I was made aware of the third by my African American friends who were very aware of racial discrimination. I was told that being white is not just about skin color. Because I am an immigrant, I may be “brown,” which can be discriminated. The fourth is age. Considering how long it takes to get all the required education, publications, and grant funding (many scientists get their first RO1 around 40) it takes time to apply to a scientist position, I doubted age was a problem. Then a friend had a postdoc interview where she was asked, “Aren’t you a little old to be a postdoc?” Finally, based on a publication in PNAS, I realized that the Institute and the lab where I conducted my graduate or postdoc work could be a discrimination factor. I wish I was aware of this PNAS article “Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women” before I selected my postdoc lab, which was not a faculty feeder lab.
Whether it is a leaky pipe or women are pushed out of science, the problem for me is discrimination. My science career needs to find a way to survive and thrive in the current hostile environment. Since there are many successful women in science in both academia and business, I decided to talk to them about their experiences. If I was going to find a solution, I needed to understand what they faced and how they overcome the obstacles to thrive. One of the first women I talked to was a successful professor in medical school. She gave me an interesting insight into why women are expected to be in assisting positions to men rather than their equals. This professor said the expectation is coming from medical schools’ former structure where doctors (men) and nurses (women) have different genders. If you apply this to academic context “women are supposed to be assisting men in their academic career.” I must admit that this was a very new concept for me. I am an immigrant. In my birth country, when I was growing up, women were expected to have leadership positions, not assist men in their career aspirations. I was interested in hearing about this because I was indirectly offered these kinds of positions. The positions that entailed me doing research, preparing manuscripts, putting my bosses’ name as the author, and my name in the acknowledgment section. I was expected to be the support technician with a full scientist responsibility. Even though I have seen these positions held by women and immigrant Ph.D. scientists, I did not relate it to discrimination.
Since the behavioral pattern is the same both in medical school and agriculture, I was able to recognize the behavior in agriculture-related disciplines and avoid those as much as possible. If I could not avoid them, then I found niches that were friendly to women. This women professor added one last thing, “Be careful, many women eat their young”. A couple of successful women told me that many women start getting exposure to discrimination as early as middle or high school. They told me that since I went to all-girls boarding school, I was not exposed to this discrimination so early and I was lucky. Considering what I have been through for the past 10 years, I did not feel that lucky. None of the successful women was scratch-free from discrimination. This is a problem that one person cannot fix. As a science community, we have to fix it together.
Related articles for:
Wishing to pursue faculty post (apply before you graduate): 1- What Makes a Competitive Faculty Application Package? 2013, Science Careers, 2-Manual for Preparing a Competitive Faculty Application Package: Volume 1 CV, 2014, free by Amazon Kindle, 3- Ph.D. training equipped you to find solutions to impossible problems! 2018, Medium
Remember that you are a role model for many young girls: 1-Are you really a doctor spelled with D O C T O R? 2017, Medium
Author: Dr. Fatma Kaplan is the CEO/CSO of Pheronym, an entrepreneur, and an accomplished scientist with experience in both biology and chemistry. She has a Ph.D. in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology and postdoctoral training in Natural Product Chemistry with a focus on isolating biologically active compounds. Dr. Kaplan discovered the first sex pheromone of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and published in Nature. Then she discovered that pheromones regulate other behaviors in both parasitic and beneficial nematodes. She has very high impact publications and her dissertation (beta-amylase’s role during cold and heat shock) was cited in textbooks within 5 years of publication. Dr. Kaplan worked as a scientist at NASA, the National Magnetic Field Laboratory and the US Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service. Dr. Kaplan co-founded Pheronym to bring nematode pheromone technology to the market and to provide effective, non-toxic pest control for farmers and gardeners.