TOWN HALL Meeting: Diversity in Mentorship

Join Us as we host a student/post-doc Town Hall. Mentorship is an important aspect of you training. But, are you doing it right? Come and learn about the importance of having diverse mentorship and how it can lead to your success! Read more


Diversity Issues in Neuroscience

Sept 25, 2015

An ongoing disussion to bring awareness of the barriers to recruitment and retention of women and minorities in neuroscience.


Discussions on Diversity

Creating a level playing field, increasing mentorship opportunities, and making inclusion a priority, are among the steps needed to attract more underrepresented minorities and increase the number of women in senior faculty positions in the neurosciences.

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I think that most of the women in this room were raised to believe that girls could do anything that boys could do. When I was in college, the Woman in Science groups seemed unnecessary — I didn't need an extra hand to get to where I was going. Even as I moved to Boston to begin PhD studies, it never occurred to me that my gender would have any impact on my career. For some of the younger women in the audience, you may yet believe the same. It wasn't until a few years later that I began to see how naïve I had been. Being a woman has been there, in the background, impacting every major decision that I made. For example, and although things are much better now, when I started, my department in graduate school had just three women faculty, and to my knowledge, all three were childless. It was the male faculty who role-modeled the work-life balance that I dreamed of. Although unspoken, the implication was obvious. You could be a great female scientist, or, you could have a family. But not both. In hindsight, my male peers spent their 20s making "and" decisions — it was a given that they wanted BOTH a career AND a family. They were just looking for the right partner, and invariably weighing in that search was whether she would support his career. Meanwhile, my female colleagues and I were making "or" decisions. Do I want an academic career? Or, a family? And in that lies the crux of the issue. The men never had to choose — why did we? I was fortunate enough to have an incredible post-doc advisor. And after I committed to an Assistant Professor position here at Sinai, our relationship changed enough that I began posing him questions that I hadn't been bold enough to ask before. Chatting with him in his office one Saturday afternoon, I asked if there had ever been a time, when his children were young, that he hadn't come into lab on the weekends. His response was matter-of-fact: "no, but it was different for me, Kristen, I had a wife." We're lucky, here at Sinai. There are lots of role models, both men and women, who demonstrate that it's possible to have both a family and a career. In fact, I don't think any of the senior faculty see this as an "or" decision at all. The question that I'd like to pose for the junior female scientists in the room, is why do we? What would need to change here at Sinai, or in the institution of academic research as a whole, in order to alter our perceptions? The best male post-docs don't opt out of research just because they want a family. It's time to give the women that same opportunity.
When Eric asked me to participate in this first Town Hall meeting on unconscious bias, it set me to thinking about my experiences serving on a variety of committees here at Mount Sinai and elsewhere, such as NIH study sections, over the past 25 years or so. What came to me quite readily was an observation that I've made repeatedly: in committee settings, during the course of open discussion, an idea or comment will be voiced by a woman, followed some time later by essentially the same idea or comment voiced by a man. What is different between these two episodes are the responses from the rest of the participants to the two speakers. The typical pattern that I've observed is a tepid response in the first instance, when the woman spoke, with a more vigorous and enthusiastic response to the similar idea voiced later by the man. So this got me to wondering: do I do this too? I think by now we all know the answer to that— the neuroscience tells us that we all carry these sorts of biases. But how would I know, specifically, about myself? This question made me realize something that's fairly obvious —that we are always our own worst critics. We simply do not see in ourselves what is so easy to pick out in others. This is exactly why we give our colleagues and lab members our thesis proposals, our grants, or our manuscripts to critique before we submit them, or have our colleagues critique our slides before presenting them at a big meeting. We just don't see our own flaws. So my message today would be to simply observe what goes on any group dynamic that you're involved in. At whatever level — students, postdocs, faculty — in any group situation where ideas are floated, discussed or challenged, observe who's pitching the ideas and how they're received, and perhaps this would be one small step towards improving self-awareness.
Women are less likely to ask for promotion they expect their chairs to put them up for promotion when the time is right (men ask to be put up for promotion when they think the time is right!). Something can do to help ourselves is be proactive, ask to be put up for promotion like your male colleagues. Women are much less likely to have a sponsor, most sponsors are usually senior white men who sponsor people who look like them. However, sponsors can play a huge and positive role — I had two senior researchers who were not my mentors/dept chair who put me up for awards, suggested me for talks at meetings or to serve on important national committees, they included me in funding opportunities that are associated with who you know — this has resulted over the years in millions of $$ of funding I would not have had access to without their help. Implicit bias: I recently received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Alz Assoc. I asked for a list of the previous winners. Although the award had been made for about 20 yrs there were very few women who had won the award before 2010 but about 50% of winners after 2010 were women. Before 2010 the awards were administered by a committee of senior men in the field. After 2010 the Alz Assoc took over and a committee of women and men administered the award with explicit instructions to identify a diverse group of individuals who met specific eligibility criteria. A few months ago I was having lunch with a Nobel Laureate and the Dean of Graduate Affairs at a local university. A member of the National Academy came up to the table and I was introduced and that I had just moved to MSSM. Once introduced the NA member asked me who I was working with at MSSM? How old did he think I am? Would he have asked the same question of Eric or George? I doubt it but of course I cant prove it. I replied that I had been recruited as a Director of a new center for AD research. None of the others around the table even blinked at the exchange.