Raeka Aiyar and Maike Sander

The road to equity in science

Reflections on equity in science: How can the progress that has been made teach us to overcome the challenges that remain? Professor Maike Sander, Scientific Director of the Max Delbrück Center, and Raeka Aiyar, PhD, Vice President, Scientific & DEIB Outreach of the NYSCF Research Institute chatted about how far we’ve come and the road ahead.

NYSCF’s dedication to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) started with our Founding CEO Susan L. Solomon, who was acutely aware of the urgency of the issue and the fact that science requires all of the brightest minds operating to their full potential.

“For her, and therefore, for NYSCF, advancing equity in STEM became mission critical,” said Dr. Aiyar in her opening remarks. “This led Susan to launch NYSCF’s Initiative on Women in Science and Engineering (IWISE) over a decade ago, followed by many other efforts to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging that we will touch on later. And so, in that spirit, we dedicate today’s event to Susan’s memory.”

Paths to Advocacy

Dr. Sander shared that her first experiences with sexism in STEM were during her graduate studies.

“Initially, I just pursued my interests, which led me to studying medicine in Germany – and that was where I began to realize that things might not be the same for me as a woman,” she recalled. “I wanted a career in endocrinology, and I approached the Chief of Reproductive Endocrinology at Heidelberg University, where I was studying, to ask how I could get involved in research, and he said it might not be the right path for me because I’m a woman.”

“It wasn’t until I went on a research exchange program to San Francisco that I experienced different attitudes,” she continued. “I saw many more women in science, and it was liberating to see how they worked. They showed me the kind of life I could lead – not even just as a scientist, but as a person. That was when I started to engage with the topic.”

Dr. Aiyar had similar experiences in school, and was led to advocacy through her work at NYSCF.

“I also experienced a kind of entrenchment in stereotypes when I was in graduate school, but it wasn’t until I reached the workforce that I started to perceive the scale of the problem,” she noted. “Especially coming to NYSCF, where we have IWISE, part of which has involved collecting data from over 500 institutions in nearly 40 countries highlighting the extent of the problem.” 

“We saw that on average, only 25% of full professors across the world were female, and in a third of those institutions, it was closer to 10%. There’s a really horrifying, linear leaky pipeline where women are lost at every step of the academic ladder. The scale of the issue was really shocking to me, and that led me to become an advocate. Susan then asked me to integrate some of this work into my job, and it has been incredibly rewarding.”

What challenges still face minorities in STEM?

In addition to the leaky pipeline Dr. Aiyar mentioned, there are still countless obstacles facing women and minorities in STEM, including harmful and exclusive attitudes toward how science is done. 

For example, women can find it hard to fit in a system that is operating with masculine measures of success and competitiveness: thriving in that framework can be difficult because it does not resonate with everyone. 

“There’s this idea that unless you are the most prominent person in your field, you have failed, and that’s just not true about the scientific discovery landscape,” said Dr. Sander. “It’s not one single person who makes the biggest impact, but rather many people working together. And I think women and men sometimes approach ideas of success differently.”

The academic world is still dominated by white men, and these are often the people selecting who to promote. 

“We know from studies that people are predisposed to favor individuals who are most like them, and this has kept academia very white and very male,” noted Dr. Sander. “Mobility can also be determined by ‘lineage’ [which lab someone comes from], and that can make things very exclusive.”

When discussing gender equity in STEM, it’s also important to acknowledge the unique challenges faced by the transgender community.

“Ben Barres – esteemed neuroscientist and transgender man – noted in his book that growing up transgender in a time of universal ignorance was incredibly painful, and so much of this is preventable in a world where people are more supportive and understanding,” said Dr. Aiyar. “And if you take away this mental anguish, imagine what people are capable of achieving.”

Lessons from Recent Progress

Drs. Sander and Aiyar reflected that while there is a long way to go, we’ve seen several examples of meaningful progress in recent years that we can learn from as we move forward. 

Women are often pressured to compete with one another, and Dr. Sander has observed a much more supportive environment amongst women than previously.

“It’s changing. When I entered science 25 years ago, when there were very few women, and not all of them were supporters; I rarely encounter this anymore,” she reflected. “We now have networks of women formed specifically to support one another; for example, we have one in the diabetes field where we try to give women more of a voice and advocate for their recognition and promotion.”

There’s also been marked progress in how institutions think about selecting scientists for prominent and decision-making roles.

“Now, we often don’t have to question things like having a gender-diverse hiring committee or speaker lineup,” said Dr. Aiyar. “That might be more or less taken for granted now, but there was a long fight to get there.”

In fact, society-wide movements like #MeToo have provided the fuel for such improvements.

“Five or ten years ago, I think the attitude was more along the lines of ‘if we recruit more women, then the problem will just kind of self-correct,’” explained Dr. Sander. “But in the wake of the ‘#MeToo’ movement, we’ve realized it’s more than that – we have to have discussions about the inherent power structures and what they do to people once they’ve entered the field.”

“We’re seeing the power of advocacy, thanks to examples set by movements like ‘Me Too’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. These really turned the focus, as you said, on power structures, and also put the issue front of mind,” added Dr. Aiyar. “It has certainly broadened the discussion, and it’s not just about women in science, it’s all interconnected.”

“I think if we had raised these points 15 years ago, people would say we were just whining,” she continued. “At least now we can talk about this – we have words for this. I never even felt comfortable talking about being a woman of color in science until the Black Lives Matter movement.” 

“I agree – ten years ago I might not be sitting here with you today, because no one did things like this,” responded Dr. Sander. “We weren’t there as a society, but now we’re ready to have the conversations.”

What can institutional leaders do to advance equity?

“We can try to lead with people in mind rather than results,” suggested Dr. Sander. “In academic science, we measure by someone’s papers, their impact factor, their position in the field – but this minimizes a lot of important contributions and leadership qualities required to enable scientific progress.”

“We have to call out harmful behavior when we see it. Especially when you lead an institution, we must also make sure that everyone feels safe doing this,” she added. “People fear repercussions, and it takes a lot of effort to make people feel really safe – I don’t think we’re there yet. We as leaders have to articulate that we can and should call things out.”

We can also provide additional resources to women to remove barriers to success.

“For example, during the pandemic, a lot of childcare duties fell onto women – to a much larger degree than men,” said Dr. Sander. “It’s important to take this into account. I admire one of NYSCF’s strategies, which is paying for childcare when women want to attend conferences.”

“We also have to think about sponsorship instead of just mentorship. We need to suggest people for conferences, put them up for awards, and do things to go the extra mile for them,” said Dr. Sander.

Another helpful measure is self-awareness training. 

“We all have biases, and we can’t just tell people not to act on them, we have to give them tools to recognize and overcome them,” remarked Dr. Sander. “This isn’t widely spread in academia yet, but this kind of leadership training can be an important component.”

“It reminds me of a great quote by Shankar Vedantam: ‘those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers, whereas those who swim against the current may never realize that they’re better swimmers than they imagine,’” shared Dr. Aiyar. “That’s a big part of awareness training: making sure people are aware of this disparity and of their privilege.”

How can individuals help to change culture?

“I want people to remember that culture change is up to each of us: it has to be lived at every level of an organization,” remarked Dr. Sander. “Maybe that means joining a DEI committee to advocate for policies that can really make a change, or advocating for reward structures that perhaps redefine what achievement means.”

“Maybe it means speaking up when you see intolerance: whether that involves telling a trusted colleague, going to the top, going to social media,” added Dr. Aiyar.

“None of this can be done alone. It’s imperative that we work together across institutions to come up with these strategies, implement them, and share our learnings,” she continued. “And we have to be solution-oriented. Everyone can voice concern, but we need everybody’s brain working together to come up with solutions.”

Altogether, this will lead to a better future for scientists everywhere.

“We need cultural change because science is becoming more of a networked enterprise: that’s where the opportunities for discovery and innovation are,” said Dr. Sander. “If you take one piece out, the whole thing crumbles away. It’s so interconnected, and we have to give everyone opportunities to thrive.”

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