Experts chart the path forward to recruit and advance more women in science

Science, medicine, and academia are increasingly grappling with obstacles that can block women from advancing their careers and feeling comfortable in the workplace. Women in science say change is urgently needed — from the board room to the lab bench.

That was the message at a panel on the path forward for women in science on Tuesday, convened by STAT and hosted at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. The event was part of the annual HUBweek festival, founded by The Boston Globe, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and MIT.

“Women can sit in a room and talk for days — for years — about how we can advocate for change,” said panelist Kate Strayer-Benton, former director of strategy of Momenta Pharmaceuticals. “But until the broader system [adopts] some of those changes, we end up getting pretty exhausted.”

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Universities, hospitals, and life sciences companies have launched and expanded gender diversity initiatives and mentorship programs. Professional scientific societies have started examining their own policies on sexual harassment, including gender-based harassment. Just last month, both the National Science Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science put new harassment policies in place.

Those are all critical steps. But a big part of the change will have to come from the top, the panelists said.

“The gatekeepers, the people in power, have to come on board as well,” said Ashlee Earl, who leads bacterial genomics research at the Broad Institute. That means that people in leadership roles need to understand the importance of recruiting and retaining a diverse staff. It also points to the need for more women in those roles, the panelists said.

“Institutions don’t change, and they don’t change culture, without proper leadership,” said Dr. Betsy Nabel, president of Brigham Health and professor at Harvard Medical School.

One way to accelerate that effort: legislation. California recently became the first state to require that all public companies have at least one woman serving on their board of directors — a step that the panelists lauded.

“Diversity in a board, like diversity in leadership, makes a company better and stronger,” said Nabel, who also called the idea that there aren’t enough qualified women to join company boards “malarkey.”

Anna Protopapas, who serves as president and chief executive officer of Mersana Therapeutics, said policies like the California law would force companies to work more aggressively to recruit women with robust credentials to serve on boards.

“This is a way to formalize a desire to work harder at it,” she said.

Protopapas and the other panelists also pointed to the more subtle factors that can be a hurdle for women in science, like scarcity of private rooms for new mothers who are nursing at scientific institutions. Another example: Women who are traveling to give scientific talks can’t always get reimbursed for the travel of a partner who is coming to care for their child.

“These are the kinds of things that chip away at someone’s resolve,” said Earl. Efforts to “minimize the friction” between personal and professional obligations will help retain more people in the field, she added.

And the panelists all agreed that continuing the conversation about hurdles for women in science will continue to keep the issue at the forefront — and as will expanding the audience.

As Strayer-Benton put it: “This can’t just be a discussion that’s just among women in science.”

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