Shaping Tomorrow: The Women Leading Open Science Advancements at the Structural Genomics Consortium [Part 2]

Imagine being part of a world that shapes the future yet feeling invisible within it. This is the reality for women in STEM, who are nearly twice as likely as those in other fields to contemplate leaving their careers behind. The culprits? Overwhelming burnout, overlooked achievements, wage disparities, and a yearning for work that resonates on a deeper level.

To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in STEM earlier this year, I had the chance to interview a dynamic and global network of female scientists, who actively work to accelerate early drug discovery.

In the second installment of this interview, we delve into the personal narratives. Beyond the impressive career trajectories and scientific achievements highlighted in Part 1, we now turn our focus to the underlying currents that influence these journeys: some of the challenges faced by women in academia, the transformative role of mentorship, and the proactive steps the SGC takes to empower women in the field.

Women in STEM: Challenges and representation in academia

According to the Global Gender Gap Report (2023), women comprise only 29.2% of the STEM workforce in 146 nations evaluated, compared to nearly 50% of non-STEM occupations. Despite strong institutional commitments to EDI, recent surveys indicate that little progress has been achieved toward attaining greater diversity.

“Gender bias and stereotypes persist in STEM disciplines, affecting hiring decisions, promotions, grants, and the evaluation of women's work. The demanding nature of academic careers, including research, teaching, and administrative responsibilities, can pose challenges and create a sense of isolation for women pursuing academic careers in STEM.”, Dr. Sandra Röhm explains.

Navigating academia and work-life balance

The demanding nature of academic careers is even more challenging for women with caregiving responsibilities. Dr. Alison Axtman and Dr. Magdalena Szewczyk stress the struggle to balance family commitments with the expectations of academia.

“The reality is that women and men face different challenges when it comes to balancing work and family responsibilities.”, Dr. Axtman explains. “While I have benefited from having managers that are very understanding of work-life balance and flexible working, some women are not so lucky.”

“Women who become mothers and do not have sufficient support, drop out of academia at higher rates than men” adds Dr. Szewczyk as she highlights the intense emotional toll of managing multiple life roles. “I had my child during my graduate studies and took only a three-month break. The pressure to excel in the workplace, while also being present for family, leads many times to stress and guilt.”

The importance of visibility and support

The conversation shifts to the critical need for better representation and support systems in STEM. Dr. Röhm notes that women's contributions to STEM may sometimes be unrecognized or undervalued, affecting their career progression and job satisfaction. “Male researchers tend to incorporate their own experiences and perspectives into their work, potentially overlooking the diversity of perspectives that arises from gender diversity in a male-dominated environment”, she adds.

Dr. Frances Bashore and Dr. Axtman underscore the role college and university professors play in shaping the field by influencing who enters and who succeeds in it. Dr. Bashore stresses the importance of increasing the representation of women in academic careers to inspire the next generation of female scientists. “Working to eliminate gender bias in academia would be a good start toward more equity and fostering positive change”, she explains.

Dr. Axtman points out though that we have a lot of work to do to achieve that and it needs to start at a young age, as attrition happens at every stage of training. “Female trainees need to see successful women at all levels of academia. Having positive female role models that show it can be done and the support network to make it a reality can start to shift the paradigm”, she mentions.

Mentorship as a catalyst for change

The lack of representation of women, particularly in senior positions, poses a significant challenge for women in STEM. It creates a scarcity of role models. “The lack of role models contributes to the difficulty women often experience in having a balance between family responsibilities and the demands of academia, impacting their career choices and advancement”, Rebeka Fanti explains.

“This lack of female mentors and role models in academia can create barriers that hinder the professional development of women”, Dr. Röhm adds.

“And finding female mentors in a male-dominated field like chemistry has been a challenge”, reflects Dr. Axtman. “Over the years I have grown my network and identified women that embody specific characteristics that I would like to emulate. I strive to be that role model for the next generation.”, she adds.

Similarly, Manisha Yadav emphasizes the role mentors have played in her skill development. “Within a supportive environment of supervisors, lab colleagues, and collaborators, I have actively participated in meaningful discussions, sought advice, and celebrated accomplishments. The encouragement from my supervisors has boosted my confidence, taught me the significance of discipline and consistency, and has been instrumental in cultivating my technical skills”, she explains.

Dr. Bashore highlights the invaluable role of mentorship in her transition within the SGC-UNC from postdoctoral research associate to research assistant professor. “It has been fantastic to have had so many positive mentors to look up to and seek advice from throughout my career so far and Alison's encouragement has been instrumental to my career trajectory. I hope that my exposure to aspirational mentors will help me to be a successful mentor to women in STEM throughout my future career.”, she shares.

Dr. Szewczyk underscores the emotional and psychological support mentors can provide, beyond just academic or professional guidance. “I came to Canada with very basic English, and I was scared that this would affect my performance at the University. I was very lucky that I ended up under the supervision of Dr. Grover from McMaster University. He encouraged me to complete my studies, focus on my personal growth and helped me build my self-confidence”, she shares.

The role of SGC

"The SGC has female powerhouses at each site. It is clear that the SGC values female leadership, trains the next generation of women in science, and aims to see women succeed at all levels," Dr. Axtman explains, pointing out the organization's commitment to nurturing and recognizing the potential of women in science. "An examination of the male-to-female ratio at each SGC site and comparison to the general academic landscape makes it clear that the SGC is not the norm in science.", she adds.

Dr. Röhm echoes this sentiment, focusing on the structural underpinning that facilitates an equitable environment. "The SGC is fostering an inclusive environment in science by promoting women and underrepresented groups in sciences in hiring and recognition," she notes, illustrating how flexible working policies can support work-life balance for all employees, including women with caring responsibilities, to thrive in their careers.

Rebeka, as a representative of the emerging generation of scientists at the SGC, offers a fresh perspective on the impact of these policies and practices. Her experience underscores the nurturing and supportive atmosphere that SGC cultivates, where diversity is not just acknowledged but celebrated. "Throughout my time here, I have consistently observed an atmosphere where women are actively encouraged and valued," Rebeka shares.

Advice for Women in STEM

A recent study examined the advice that women in STEM majors want to share with their peers and highlighted the importance of shared experiences and guidance in navigating the path of a STEM career. Drawing inspiration from this study, I invited our interviewees to offer their own pieces of advice for women embarking on or currently navigating their journey in STEM.

  1. Cultivate your support network

Dr. Axtman advises on finding good mentors early. “These mentors might be female, but they don’t have to be. Find people who exemplify qualities that you want to emulate and who have accomplished things that you see for yourself. Keep populating your network and adding individuals that engender these traits. This support network will want to see you succeed and help you along the way.”, she explains.

Dr. Röhm emphasizes the importance of early preparation and networking. “Before deciding on a STEM career, plan your studies and find out about the job prospects and challenges you will face, especially as a woman. Even if it is sometimes frustrating to fail again and again, join forces with people who will support you and motivate you to keep going.”

  1. Champion yourself

Surrounding yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, and colleagues has come up with Dr. Szewczyk’s piece of advice but she also stresses the importance of believing in yourself. “Have confidence in your abilities, connect with other women in STEM, stay curious and be committed to continuous learning.”

“Don’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for yourself and make time to enjoy and celebrate every achievement.”, Dr. Bashore adds.

  1. Prioritize self-care

Rebeka underscores the importance of balance: “Strive for a healthy work-life balance. Taking care of your well-being is essential for sustaining a fulfilling and successful career in the long run.”

  1. Maintain resilience

As Manisha notes “The pursuit of science requires patience, adaptability, and an enduring sense of curiosity.”. Rebeka highlights that challenges will arise and the best way to deal with them is by perseverance “The journey in STEM is often filled with learning experiences, and overcoming obstacles will only make you stronger.”

Dr. Dalia Barsyte-Lovejoy echoes this sentiment and advises “Keep at it, grow a thick skin (reviewers will make you do it anyway) and do not take things personally.”

On International Women’s Day, we are reminded to focus on empowering girls and women and investing in their potential to lead. “STEM careers are very demanding and rewarding, but one needs a great deal of motivation, dedication and confidence to succeed. If you love what you do, keep at it and always seek people to help you”, Dr. Barsyte-Lovejoy highlights.

To all women embarking on or navigating their STEM journey, remember: your contributions are invaluable, your potential limitless, and your presence in STEM is not just welcome but necessary.

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