Joan Steitz–Writing the Book on Women in Academic Science and Engineering

LC: You’ve also worked with the National Academies to research the role of gender in scientific research. 

JS: Right, that was a one time appointment to the committee that wrote the book on women in science. The committee was appointed by the National Academy of Sciences and Donna Shalala, who’d been the HHS head secretary in the Clinton administration. Watching her was marvelous. It was at a time when things like unconscious bias were beginning to come to light, so for me it was really a fabulous experience because I hadn’t thought about these things concretely and didn’t know of the various studies that had documented unconscious bias. 

So I felt that I learned an incredible amount about what was going on and, if you look at it, it’s got recommendations for all sorts of levels of education and society that impact academic careers in science. That committee got published in a year or something which is absolutely record breaking because Donna Shalala was there beating on us. Of course a report like that is not written literally by the people on the committee. It’s written by staff writers who attend all the meetings and there was a symposium called where we invited in the experts in various subfields to talk about what was going on. And the book is read and edited by the members of the committee and by the chair of the committee. 

So I vowed when I got off that, that if anybody ever invited me to come talk about this stuff I would come talk about it, because I felt like I had learned so much and I wanted the information to be disseminated. 

LC: I remember the scissor graph. 

JS: Right that’s my favorite graph. 

Scissors Diagram Showing the Gender Distribution within Career Stages in Biological Sciences at German Universities (2003)

LC: Obviously the kind of social psychology aspect of gender in science must be a large part of this phenomenon. I am wondering about the blatantly sexist things that people have said or done, like those you’ve mentioned happening to you, how those have affected your career path. 

JS: Well in a sense they sort of helped my path because in all the cases I ended up in a better place than I would have been if I hadn’t been subjected to blatant prejudice.

LC: Do you think those things have gotten better? How much is outright discrimination still a problem?

JS: Well I think in terms of outright stuff except for outright sexual harassment, I think things have gotten a lot better because people know enough about this area. It has sort of seeped into society and academia enough that nobody feels like they can say really blatantly racist or sexist things in public. Maybe they do it at the dinner table or at home, but nobody feels that they can do that. It’s gotten much better in terms of the recognition of everybody that this has been a factor in where we are now. 

I think I probably said in the lecture you watched that I also consider this phenomenon of stereotype threat or social identity threat to be even perhaps a more important issue. Yesterday there was a fabulous lecture, a lecture in memory of my husband, was given by Venkatraman Radhakrishnan about his life and science. He is currently the president of the Royal Society of London. He was here as a postdoc, so I’ve known him since that time and he’s a wonderful person and a co-nobel prize winner with my husband. 

And he talked about his life coming from India and going to a small college in the US, and later pursuing a physics PhD. And one of the things he said on his last slide was that everybody suffers from imposter syndrome. And it’s probably worse if you’re either racially or gender-wise in the minority, but it happens to everybody and it’s something that everybody should think about and know about so he was saying the same thing–that this is really important.

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