Why Fewer Women Succeed at the Highest Levels of Science — From a Woman Who Did

Neuroscience

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.

"Sometimes you have to learn when not to be too much of a lady," says Joy Hirsch. "So if you have to kick a**, just go do it." Director of the Brain Function Laboratory at Yale University, Hirsch knows the challenges that women face in professional life. Often valued for more traditional qualities like the ability to teach or mentor, women aren't always first thought of as leaders; but of course they are, and always have been. The challenge ahead of us, as Hirsch says, is to "allow ambitious, talented women to contribute as best they can."

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TRANSCRIPT

Joy Hirsch: A powerful leader of the field is not usually a descriptor for a woman.  Oftentimes, a woman is described in terms of her excellent teaching ability and her mentoring, but that’s not considered the attribute that leads to leadership and scientific advances. 

I like working with men.  I was raised with brothers; I have no sisters.  My laboratory, for example, is a very consensus-driven collaborative laboratory.  It is not a traditional sort of male-organized structure.  And being able to appreciate those differences and value them, I think, is a very important part of the advancement of our science. 

That being said, I have no . . . no hesitation in reporting experiences of pretty extraordinary discrimination.  And, these types of discrimination events are benign in that they're not intentional but they're probabilistic.  That means that at every single decision point that a woman scientist has, she's a little bit, just a little bit, more vulnerable than a comparable male colleague. 

And when we look at the numbers, they cry for an explanation.  Why is it that we start as undergraduates, now, with a 50/50 distribution of women in many of the hard sciences, and there is this progressive attrition of women to the high ranks so that when we get to the tenured ranks of a university, what happens to all the women?  Well, it’s easy to give explanations about, you know, life’s complexities, family, etc., etc., etc. . . . That doesn’t explain it if you ask the women that started out in the trajectory and didn’t make it.  Even if a woman does get tenure, for example, she doesn’t so often get the endowed chair that is given to the more favored colleagues, which is oftentimes a man.  Men with endowed chairs have better salary support because they have money from the endowed chair.  The woman doesn’t.  And so, even at the highest ranks, it is more difficult, I think, for women scientists.

If you love the science, and if that’s what you’re born to do, then don’t be discouraged by any of this.  Just go do it.  Somehow there'll be a way.  Sometimes you have to learn when not to be too much of a lady.  So if you have to kick ass, just go do it.  That's what women are going to have to do: they’re going to have to face that every once in awhile, that you just sometimes gotta be tougher than you are. 

It’s important for institutions to value their women, let their women know that they are valued and to put supports in place that allow ambitious, talented women to contribute as best they can.