Women throughout history have played leading roles in scientific innovation, helping shape the world we know today. From Rosalind Franklin and her discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure in the 1950s to Mary-Claire King and her more recent discovery of the BRCA1 gene’s ties to breast and ovarian cancers, women have been integral to advancing human health and science, laying the groundwork for others to follow.
In recognition of Women’s Equality Day—celebrated in the United States on Aug. 26 to commemorate the 1920 adoption of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote—Pew spoke with female scientists, including alumni of Pew’s biomedical scholars and fellows programs, and Kara Coleman, director of Pew’s biomedical programs. They talked about their challenges and experiences in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field, what it will take to boost their numbers in the next generation, and how to help more women become leaders.
Yazmín Macotela is an assistant professor at the Institute of Neurobiology at National Autonomous University of Mexico, April Kloxin is an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware, and Nadya Dimitrova is an assistant professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University. Kara Coleman holds a doctorate in cell and molecular biology from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and manages Pew’s biomedical programs, which fund promising research for scientists early in their careers.
Each of the scientists responded to a single question:
"Based on your experience in the field, what is needed to recruit and retain the next generation of female scientists?"
Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Yazmín Macotela, Ph.D.
2005 Latin American fellow
Focus: Endocrinology and metabolism
To build the next generation of women in STEM, we must close the gender gap and combat stereotypes so that girls see themselves as engineers, scientists, astronauts, and mathematicians from an early age. Additionally, we must make STEM careers friendlier for women with children. To do this, we must address the stigmas too often faced by mothers working in STEM. On one hand, a female professional who dedicates less time to scientific activities in order to balance her family life can be perceived as less productive or devoted to her career; on the other, a woman with a career can be perceived as less committed to her family.
In order to recruit and retain more women in science and STEM, all members of society—government, educators, the media, and more—must combat such stigmas and empower women to balance their family life with promising careers.
April Kloxin, Ph.D.
2013 Pew biomedical scholar
Focus: Chemical and biomolecular engineering
In order to recruit and retain diverse, talented women, we as experts need to better communicate how chemical and biomolecular engineering—or any specific scientific field—is able to provide solutions to a whole host of challenges facing society, including those related to biological systems for improving human health.
I believe that informal and institutionally supported mentoring is key for investing in the long-term success of the next generation of scientists. This includes training for mentors and mentees at different levels. Additionally, there is a significant need for resources and policies that promote career-life balance, including access to family care and supplemental support for researchers during major life events. By providing multiple levels of support, we will be better positioned to recruit and retain diverse women who will address significant societal challenges and facilitate scientific innovation.
Nadya Dimitrova, Ph.D.
2017 Pew-Stewart scholar
Focus: Cancer biology
The one single thing that will help recruit and retain female scientists is family, or work-life balance, support. I experienced—along with the birth of my first child—the pressures and hardships of balancing my professional and personal life, including moving my family to a new city while starting a new lab and research program. This was extremely challenging and caused me to wonder whether this was the right choice for me and my family. Looking forward to the next generation, if research institutions can help provide support and access to high-quality, affordable, and convenient day care, women scientists will not lose sight of their career’s unlimited potential.
Kara Coleman, Ph.D.
Project director, Pew biomedical programs
As someone who works with early-career scientists daily, I see many of the challenges that our female grantees face as they begin their careers. Change needs to come from the bottom up by teaching young girls that STEM careers are attainable, and from the top down by elevating individuals to leadership positions in universities who will enact significant change in providing support for women throughout their careers. One cannot happen without the other, and both are essential to retaining the next generation of talented female scientific leaders.