Starting with Cells: Rethinking Science as a Place for Women

By Ann C. Bonham, PhD and Diana Lautenberger, MA

The recent Science article on stereotypes about innate genius and the impact it has for women in science fields is the latest in a series of discouraging reports. It brings to mind the 2012 Yale study published in PNAS, which concluded that both male and female scientists regard female undergraduates as less competent than male students with the same accomplishments and skills. Why are we still grappling with the differential assignment of competence by gender? What will it take to upend the stereotypes about the capacities of women that remain in our cultural subconscious? It’s not that women don’t have an innate talent for science: Women working on important discoveries challenge this notion every day. One answer may be that our cultural blinders inhibit us from seeing women as authorities, and this lack of visibility for women in science fields perpetuates a cycle of cultural stereotypes.

This issue intersects and closely mirrors the importance of including women in clinical trials and recognizing sex as a biological variable as inherent to good science—whether at the bench, in the clinic, or in the community. There are positive trends for including sex and gender analysis in biomedical research. In 2013, the European Commission asked that applicants to its Horizon 2020 funding include an analysis of whether the research will have different implications for men and women.  The Canadian Institutes of Health Research also requires an analysis of sex and gender when appropriate. And back in May 2014, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced plans to require that all NIH-funded preclinical research include an appropriate balance of male and female cells and animals.

This increased attention to the inclusion of sex as a biological variable in science is part and parcel of “good science.” Can we then also leverage this notion of “good science” to increasing the inclusion of women as scientists as “good science?” By this token, “good science” must be good for science, and therefore good for the health of all our citizens. By acknowledging the cells of women in research as a sound scientific practice, we can extend our thinking to acknowledge women in science as a sound cultural practice.

We do have role models for women as scientific groundbreakers.  Thank goodness for women like Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, Maryam Mirzakhani, and Fabiola Giannotti (speaking of genius and competence) who are champions in upending negative stereotypes about women in the sciences. But the elevation of a few key innovators will not remedy the issue. The key is bringing visibility to the great number of talented women scientists at work today. How can we elevate the work of women scientists as scientists, where their gender is not the amazing discovery; rather, their research is? Celebrating the work of women doing important research will help realign our cultural expectations for what a “scientist,” “genius,” or “leader” looks like. In showing more examples of these types of roles, we can pull off the cultural blinders and see “good science” happening by all types of “good scientists.” And seeing gender-blind genius is a discovery we’re all waiting for.

bonham-annJeff Callen PhotoAnn Bonham, PhD, is Chief Scientific Affairs Officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges. She can be reached at Diana Lautenberger, MAT, is Director, Women in Medicine and Science at the AAMC;