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Why Science Must Adapt to Women

An elite survivor assesses the hidden costs of exclusion

By Peggy Orenstein
Nov 1, 2002 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:16 AM


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Elizabeth Blackburn is talking about chromosomes, which isn't surprising: She is the biologist who in 1978 first established that telomeres, caps on the ends of chromosomes, protect critical genetic material from eroding during cell division. Seven years later, she and molecular biologist Carol Greider discovered the enzyme telomerase. Both findings offer tantalizing clues to the mysteries of aging and cancer. In as many as 90 percent of metastatic cancers, for instance, telomerase is wildly over-expressed. Blackburn's work has launched one of the hottest fields in cell biology. Her office in the Blackburn Lab at the University of California at San Francisco is chockablock with awards; it also sports a poster depicting dancing chromosomes tipped with merry, Day-Glo telomeres.

What has Blackburn riled up at the moment, however, has nothing to do with her research. She is focused on the X's and Y's of chromosomes and why it is that more XX types—women—disappear from academic science. Nearly half of undergraduate science and engineering degrees are earned by women, but that number plummets to a third at the doctoral level, propped up by high numbers in fields such as psychology. Just 22 percent of doctorates in physics and 12 percent in engineering are awarded to women. At the faculty level, women's representation shrinks to 20 percent, concentrated, after controlling for age, in the lower ranks and at less prestigious institutions. In the rarefied air of the National Academy of Sciences, women's membership hovers around 7 percent. Blackburn is one of these elite survivors. "The argument has been that the pipeline will take care of this," Blackburn says, referring to the idea that if enough women are encouraged to enter science early, the gender gap, over time, will disappear. "But the pipeline has been good for a number of years, and it hasn't taken care of it. In biology it's especially insidious because 50 percent of grad students are female. This has been the case for quite some time. Yet when I was chair of my department, I was the only woman chair in the entire medical school. We are putting a lot of our students off continuing—both men and women, but more women. They vote with their feet." Make no mistake, Blackburn has flourished in the culture of science. But when she entered in the 1970s, the expectation was that once the pesky problem of overt discrimination was solved, women would adapt to science. Three decades later, she believes that hypothesis was wrong. To create true equality—to ensure that the best minds continue—she feels that science will have to adapt to women.

"I'm all for balanced lives, but I don't know that you have to be balanced all the time," says Elizabeth Blackburn, peeking out from behind the clutter of her cellular biology lab.

It is no secret why women scientists flow out of the academic pipeline. Numerous studies have shown that subtle, often unintentional bias combined with a tenure process that overlaps childbearing years has a corrosive effect. A study of 2,000 science and engineering doctoral students sponsored by the National Science Foundation in 1996 found that men were more likely than women to report that they were taken seriously by faculty. They were also more likely to have received help designing research, writing grant proposals, coauthoring publications, and learning management skills. According to Gerhard Sonnert, a sociologist of science at Harvard University who published a large-scale study on gender and science in 1995, women are often put off by the combative style that's rewarded in scientific research, as well as the emphasis on self-promotion. "There's an accepted language of science that has entered into the folklore and become the field," Blackburn says. "Women don't necessarily speak that exact same language, which is not to say that the language they use is not as good. It is. But all those subtle ways women present things that are different from men, even their tone of voice, play into how what they're presenting is accepted, its authority." What's more, women who do take on an aggressive style are often labeled "difficult." Women who stick to the academic track may run into further obstacles when they go job hunting. Rhea Steinpreis, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, sent more than 230 curricula vitae to randomly selected professors, asking them to evaluate the fitness of the candidate as a job applicant. The CVs were identical in every respect but one: Half were sent by "Karen Miller" and half by "Brian Miller." Fewer than half the professors would hire Karen; Brian was endorsed by two-thirds. Sometimes women fight back: In 1999 a group of female faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented a report to the president of the institution quantifying a culture that marginalized women. In addition to lower pay, they documented discrimination in hiring, promotions, and awards; exclusion from leadership positions; inequities in lab size; and hostility toward family responsibilities. Meanwhile, faculty ratios hadn't budged in two decades. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the report was that because female faculty members had little contact with one another, they tended to see their ill treatment as a unique, isolated event rather than the result of gender bias. When they quit, as many did, they blamed themselves for their inability to thrive.

Elizabeth Blackburn is hard-pressed to recall ever being told that because she was female she couldn't be a scientist. Growing up in Tasmania, Australia, the second of seven children whose parents were both family physicians, she considered science a birthright. She was further insulated from stereotyping by attending an all-girls school and an all-female college. Blackburn went on to graduate school at Cambridge and a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale, where she recalls her mentor, cell biologist Joe Gall, as particularly supportive. Looking back on her career, however, she believes she was subject to plenty of bias; like many successful women in nontraditional fields, she was just particularly adept at denying it. "I was oblivious for a long time," she recalls, "and that's the way I coped. It was very much a defense. If I had stopped and thought about it, I would've felt so vulnerable to it." As she talks, Blackburn sits in the living room of the house she shares with her husband, John Sedat, a cell biologist and microscopy expert at UCSF who works on three-dimensional structures of chromosomes in nuclei, and their 15-year-old son, Ben. It's a typically chilly San Francisco summer Sunday. Wisps of fog slide by, rendering the view as undefined as the cost to a woman of blocking out an unfriendly culture. "I spent so much time exhausted and anxious," Blackburn sighs. "It was a different kind of tension than for my male colleagues. And I can't really say what that means. Was I more afraid of being wrong? I don't know." Not until she was an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley and saw a talented female colleague turned down for tenure did Blackburn realize that denial might not protect her. "That was my first wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee feeling," she says. "For a long time, I was stupid enough to think it's only the science that counts. That's a great comfort because you love doing your science. But realistically I knew—I know now—that's not the whole thing." What propelled Blackburn forward was passion for the work. She is a driven, gifted scientist, and the exciting results of her research reinforced her commitment. If they hadn't, she wonders whether she would have persisted. Like many women, she was tempted to dribble out of the pipeline toward the end of her postdoc. "At one point I thought I was pregnant," she says. "And I thought, 'Oh well, I'll just have a child, and I won't have to think about this pressure.' I don't know if that would've been short term or not. I look back and think how easily one can be deflected because one is at a daunting stage such as having to go out and look for a job." Blackburn had only one child, at 38, after her appointment to the safe haven of full professorship. When she was placed on bed rest for the last five months of the pregnancy, she offered to take the time as a sabbatical with reduced pay. Her department head, a man, informed her that she was entitled to a leave with full salary. "Here I was, all apologetic," she says. "I was inviting discrimination. It was pathetic. Even at the time, I realized that. But I felt like, here I am not keeping up my end of the bargain.'" After Ben was born, she moved to UCSF. For years, she says, her life consisted of exactly two things: work and family, which makes her sympathetic to other parents in her lab. "Many women wonder, 'How am I going to do this and have a family?' Because part of the culture of science is that if you're not there until late, you're not really doing it, which is the biggest pile of crap. All these hours and chatting and things like that don't make the science better." She and Sedat were lucky and affluent enough to find a child-care provider they trusted. Luck is a word that Blackburn uses often. She feels lucky to have had encouraging mentors, lucky that her research vindicated her commitment, lucky to have found consistent, loving child care for Ben, lucky to have satisfying work, a happy marriage, and parenthood. Listening to her, though, one wonders: Serendipity plays a role in every life, but is it disproportionately necessary for a woman who wants to pursue academic research? "Someone once asked me how I did it as a woman," Blackburn recalls. "I said something that surprised even me at the time: 'I disguised myself as a man.' I had not really realized until that conversation that that's what I was doing. At the time, I didn't think of it as a sad thing, but it is sad." She does not perpetuate that strategy. Her lab is half female; a bulletin board is covered with photos of pregnant grad students and postdocs. Some of her students have gone on to mentor others. And 20 years after she and Greider discovered telomerase, the research on the enzyme is largely dominated by women.

Blackburn packs me off to lunch one afternoon with three of the most promising young women scientists in her lab. Jue Lin, 32, is a postdoc in molecular biology with a Ph.D. from Cornell. Melissa Rivera, 30, who did her undergraduate work at MIT, will soon move on to a postdoc at the University of Texas at Austin. Carol Anderson, 29, is a graduate student in molecular biology with a B.S. from Yale. Rivera and Anderson are single. Lin is married with two toddlers. We stroll down the hill to a Thai place in San Francisco's Sunset District, taking a circuitous route to avoid the steepest streets. While each of these women had once assumed that she would become a principal investigator, they are no longer quite so sure. All three consider their doubts to be personal, yet they sound awfully familiar to me. "It's just, you've got to be this person that I don't want to be in order to be successful as a scientist," Rivera says. "You have to be competitive, and grab things from wherever you can get them, and be protective of what you present." But surely they're accustomed to competition. "This is different," Lin says. "It's not just about studying and getting good grades. I've always done well at that. This is politics." In addition to, or perhaps because of, her disenchantment, the demands of work seem to conflict with family life. "When I'm in the lab, I think about what's going on in the house," she says. "At home I think, 'I could be working, I could be getting something done.'" Rivera has put her social life on hold until she finishes her degree. At 30, she is more interested in biology than in her biological clock, but when she projects forward, she's apprehensive. "By the time I'll be established, I'll be 40," she says. "So then I get to maybe date and get married and have children. People can do it, and they do, but meanwhile, you're working 12 hours a day. It's not human." Anderson, the youngest, frowns. "Maybe it's not necessary to work 16 hours a day to be successful." she says. "I wanted to be in Liz's lab, to have an example of someone who was successful but lives a balanced life." She has joined a support program for women graduate students in the sciences. Does she expect to become an advocate for change? "I would," she says, "but I'm not sure what change needs to happen. The problem isn't clearly defined." "How do you get rid of those subtle biases?" Rivera asks of no one in particular. "It takes effort," Anderson says. "Women mentoring other women, supporting each other—which won't happen if women don't go into academic science." On the way back to the lab, the three enthuse about Blackburn. "Liz is really special," Rivera says. "My next principal investigator is also a woman. She's not typical either. Maybe if I see a lot of P.I.'s like them, it will make a difference. The door is still open. Ask me again in five years. Maybe I'll see that I can do this and still be me."

Blackburn's son, Ben, thinks he probably won't pursue a career in biology because "my parents talk about it every night over dinner." He's interested in robotics but still "wants to keep his options open."

Blackburn is troubled by the younger women's perception of what it takes to be a successful academic. True, she says, the pressure is more intense for this generation, male or female, at all career stages. But those three could more than meet the challenge. "How many years have these women spent doing incredibly difficult, demanding work? Ten? Thirteen? They ought to get more choices and not feel intimidated after all that. If you have a passion for the work, you should be able to go for it." Maybe they will. Recently, there have been signs of change. A follow-up to the MIT report, issued in March, showed that while the institution still had a long way to go, it had made progress: More women had been appointed to leadership roles, salaries had increased, collegiality had improved. The university is considering innovative hiring practices and has changed the tenure process to allow time out for childbearing. Other universities have launched their own investigations. Some already offer on-site day care, part-time positions, housing, and mentoring. For more radical thinkers like Debra Rolison, head of the Advanced Electrochemical Materials Section at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., waiting for reform isn't acceptable. She believes taxpayers shouldn't support discriminatory institutions. Title IX legislation ought to be applied to hiring practices in academic science, she says. "It's simple. We should yank all federal funds if departments are not hiring women commensurate to how they're training them. You can bet that would solve the problem quickly."

In late June, Blackburn is in Washington, D.C., serving on the President's Bioethics Council on Stem Cell Research. Other scientists had declined to participate, believing the committee would be stacked toward conservatives. Perhaps those years of being a lone female voice make her more willing to stand up for the minority position. "This research is enormously important," she says. "There are intractable diseases out there, and we can't continue with business as usual." When the council breaks after three days, she is cautiously optimistic. A narrow majority of the members have been swayed to her point of view: Ban reproductive cloning but proceed with cloning for research under strict regulation. Will that position be reflected in the final report? "They could easily present this in a way that would hang up the research, that would effectively make it impossible to proceed," Blackburn warns. (The following month, when the report became public, it did disappoint. It advised a four-year moratorium, an option that had hardly been discussed by the group. Discouraged, Blackburn skipped the next meeting.) For now she has brought her son, Ben, with her, and they're eager to hit the museums. I ask Ben how he copes with his mother's frequent travels. Even as the question escapes my mouth, I realize it reflects my own unconscious bias: Would I ask the son of a male biologist whether his father's travel schedule upsets him? Am I not implying that Ben ought to resent his mother's work? The truth is that when Ben was younger, Blackburn's absence did make him anxious, which worried her. She cut back on trips and stayed away no more than two nights at a time. She and Sedat never traveled simultaneously. Today Ben seems enviably close to both parents and quietly proud of his mother's accomplishments. "I don't like her going away," he says thoughtfully. "But this council is a worthy cause, and it's important for her to make some good happen. I'm in agreement with her on these issues; we share the same opinion—and she didn't prime me to say that!" It is difficult to believe there could be any barriers left for Blackburn to break through, but I can't resist asking. She has been nominated for a Nobel Prize, an honor only 10 women scientists have won since it was first awarded in 1901. Will those XX chromosomes undermine telomerase's chance for glory? "If you look at the track record, it would certainly factor against it," she says, then smiles wryly. "But every now and then, you know, someone has to make a gesture to prove the track record is wrong."

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