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The Importance of Mentoring Women

A good mentorship – a one-on-one learning relationship with an established scientist who conveys the skills, specialized knowledge, culture and values of a particular field – can help women scientists optimize their careers every step of the way. "A good mentor can teach you to be a better scientist and a better leader," said Celeste Berg, Professor of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. Furthermore, mentors can “tell you how the culture works, how to go about writing better grants, and how to make your papers more interesting to journal editors and the general public," she said.

Celeste Berg. Credit: Mark Kot

Women are half the total American college-educated workforce, but only 28 percent of them have jobs in science and engineering. Presently, women receive about 40 percent of STEM doctorates and even fewer (about one-third) receive Ph.D.’s in math, the physical sciences, computer science or engineering. This gender disparity is also seen in faculty members; less than 30 percent of senior faculty members in STEM subjects at top universities are women. Studies have shown that bias against women students persists, limiting their opportunities, and three gender-discrimination lawsuits the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, settled in 2018, indicate that discrimination and ill treatment can continue deep into a woman's career.

A good mentor, one who takes responsibility for a trainee's professional development, can go a long way toward enhancing a female scientist's chances of having a successful career. Berg, who worked with the esteemed biologist Joseph Gall at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1983 to 1986, said a female scientist's mentor is an important part of her overall "pedigree," an indication to prospective employers that she has been well trained. Berg adds, "I think a scientist needs mentors her whole career. I have mentors myself now, mostly colleagues I respect, whom I go to for advice."

Berg had "no mentoring at all" through college at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and she struggled with choosing a career. At the beginning of her time in graduate school at Yale, she worked with a mentor who was not helpful. Then Berg found Gall, who has famously mentored women scientists since the 1950s and 1960s.

"Joe had very decided ideas about what were good experiments and what were not good experiments, and he was frank and honest and forthright," Berg recalled. "He was always opening my eyes to new ways of looking at things. He taught me to think like a scientist."

According to Gall, it is “pretty unusual to become a successful person in any field without mentoring." In science, "it helps to be in a successful lab group, to see how success is attained," he said.

Gall was never on a mission to champion women in particular. "It didn't make a difference to me," he said. Over the years, he's hired more or less equal numbers of men and women for his lab. "It goes back to the fact that my mother was the person who fostered my interest in science…my mother made insect nets for me out of coat hangers and pieces of muslin. It never occurred to me that a woman wouldn't be interested in science, or have the capability of doing it," he said. Gall has called his mother "my most important mentor."

 

Susan Gerbi. Credit: Brown University

Susan Gerbi, professor of biochemistry at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, was also a mentee of Gall's at Yale, where he was professor of biology, molecular biophysics and biochemistry from 1964 to 1983. When she worked in Gall's lab from 1965 to 1970, Gerbi was part of the team that developed in situ hybridization, a seminal microscope-based method of mapping genetic material in the cell. It was typical of Gall to involve his mentees in significant projects, Gerbi said. He also took his whole lab to meetings and introduced them to other top researchers. According to Gerbi, one of the main things she learned from Gall was how to be a good mentor herself.

"Mentoring is an important part of what we do," Gerbi said. "In terms of my own students, I try to help them have confidence in their ideas, to develop their critical analytical skills as well as their creative skills, and to give them a solid scientific foundation."

Gerbi said she believes she escaped discrimination in her own career to a large degree. "I had quite a sheltered life in Joe Gall's lab," she said, and then she went on to have her own lab at Brown, which "already had a track record of treating women fairly."  

A good mentor is mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, male and female, Berg and Gerbi agreed.

"Everybody is different," said Berg, who advises students to look for mentors who are a good fit with their own personalities, who are respectful of their ideas and willing to listen. "One thing I learned from Joe is that it's important to follow your interests. There's no perfect job or perfect place to work. Your happiness depends on how you approach it, your attitude — and that you're doing something you're really interested in."

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Delia O'Hara