Times editor tells women how to succeed

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Female scientists should know what they want out of their careers and pursue those goals, Cornelia Dean ’69, former science editor at the New York Times, told about 25 female students, faculty and community members in Petteruti Lounge Tuesday night. Though many barriers prevent women from advancing in the sciences, they can succeed by networking, believing in their abilities and learning how to negotiate, she said.

Dean is currently a lecturer in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard and a trustee of the Corporation, Brown’s highest governing body. The lecture, which was organized by the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, was part of a series of events for Women’s History Month to explore the theme of “Women Inside/Outside Tradition.”

Dean drew on statistics, personal experience and the observations of others to address the underrepresentation of women in science.

The National Academy of Sciences is less than 20 percent female; the National Academy of Engineering is “thrilled” that five percent of their members are women; and top-tier research institutions have very few female professors in science fields, Dean said. Studies “demonstrate very clearly that people judge Ken’s resume better than Karen’s,” she added.

But, Dean said, it “is a mistake to dwell on these things.”

“There are real things still happening that we can work on,” she said.

Many problems affecting women in science stem from a double standard applied to women in science-related fields and cultural constructs that associate science with “masculine characteristics” such as aggression and curiosity, Dean said.

To be successful, women must be high-achieving, develop negotiation skills and “find a mentor,” Dean said. Because of the disadvantages women must work through to gain prominence as scientists, it is crucial to network and find people whose opinions are respected who will “be in your corner and on your side,” she said. “Even if you have to hold your nose and look the other way,” the benefits of networking outweigh the negative implications of using connections for advancement.

Dean also offered her audience some general “life lessons.”

First, she said that women must break the habits of self-criticism that hold them back professionally. “If a man is up for a job he will say, ‘Who could be better than me?'” she said. Women will often imagine an ideal candidate and then conclude that they don’t measure up.

Second, “if there is something you want, ask for it,” Dean said. Often, figuring out what one wants is the hardest part, she added.

Third, “have a plan, have a plan B,” she said. A plan will help women stay focused and having a backup will reassure them that even if things don’t work out, it will be OK.

Her final piece of advice was one that Dean was given while preparing for a reporting trip to Antarctica: “If someone offers you help, take it.” Many people think it is more impressive to do things themselves, she said. But women should think twice before passing up valuable assistance, she said.

After opening the floor to questions from the audience, Dean addressed more-specific initiatives to better the situation of women in science.

Dean said that she supports allowing women and men to “stop the tenure clock” by extending the probationary period before tenure is achieved to allow for child rearing. She also said that women are usually not vocal enough about demanding affordable childcare.

She also spoke about problems faced by science journalism and the need for scientists to engage the public.

Since Americans are generally ignorant about science, they are vulnerable to “spin,” Dean said. She cited the belief that a debate exists about climate change and humans’ effect on the environment when scientific evidence very clearly demonstrates the reality. “It becomes a discussion of values,” she said, as people must decide at what point intervention is necessary, not if the problem exists.

Dean’s lecture was one of the highest-billed events for this year’s Women’s History Month series. Each year, the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center chooses a theme that encompasses the many interests of the student organizers who do most of the event planning, said Gail Cohee, director of the center.

Tonight, a panel discussion, “Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault,” will be held at 7 p.m. in Smith-Buonanno 106. On March 17 another discussion, “Women in Sports: Where Are We Going and How Do We Get There?” featuring former Brown athletes and Olympians will take place at 7:30 p.m. in MacMillan 117.

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