I recently visited the University of Regina to give a seminar in the department of Biology. I have two collaborators in the department, Drs. Chris Somers and Richard Manzon. They are two important collaborators on our whitefish research, studying the effects of multiple stressors (temperature, chemicals, and radiation) on developing whitefish. My seminar was not on whitefish research though, but on our pharmaceutical research. My talk, Pharmaceuticals in Water: The Health Implications for our Fish, was gratifyingly well attended and followed by a social event that was a lot of fun.
While I was there, we had an extended whitefish research meeting, followed by some discussion with Dr. Somers’ lab. Dr. Somers happens to have a lab full of women and he asked me to talk about my experiences as a female professor. Its a strange thing to be viewed as a possible mentor for women in science; not because I lack opinions on the topic, but more because it comes from a view that I am successful at it. For most women in science, including me, I think that it is sometimes difficult to see your own success. Indeed, I was asked where my confidence came from and my first thought was “Am I confident?”. So my advice for younger women researchers came down to a few key things.
1. Be aware of your own difficulties to describe your strengths objectively. Indeed, if you aren’t uncomfortable with what you’ve said (in a cover letter, grant etc) about your expertise, you’ve probably undersold yourself significantly.
2. Try not to listen to the negative because there will always be negative. This is best done by surrounding yourself with supporters and asking their opinion first.
3. Pay attention to how people are introduced and if they don’t offer the same level of formality to you, correct it. If everyone else is called Dr. so-and so; your title should be used too.
4. Don’t assume that women are any better at being unbiased. Everyone needs to look for the potential for gender or racial bias; both in themselves and in the processes they take part in. That way, we can be part of the solution.
I’m not sure if this is all I would talk about should I be asked this again. Certainly, its something I’ve been thinking about a lot since. Its the first time a male colleague has ever asked me this and I’m grateful to it isn’t just the women thinking about these things.