The first woman ever to be an institute director at NIH, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, took the helm at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in 1974. It took 17 more years for Dr. Bernadine Healy to become the first—and so far only—female director of NIH.
Today, I am one of 10 women serving as directors across the 27 institutes and centers at NIH—the most female directors NIH has ever seen at one time. Clearly, we’ve made some important gains, but as NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has recently said, “We have not achieved the point where women have their rightful place in leadership.”
It’s not that women aren’t interested in science or in leadership. Instead, studies are finding that far too many women who enter the field abandon their careers, whether due to hiring bias, the wage gap, or sexual or gender harassment. We’re all losing due to that loss of talent and intelligence.
Science needs women, not just as laborers, but as thinkers, innovators, and leaders. It needs our different perspectives and our thoughts on what issues are worthy of research. It needs our different ways of attacking problems, interpreting results, and considering solutions. It needs our diversity to help reduce bias and to yield findings that are more generalizable. The problems science addresses are too large, too multifaceted, and too important to tackle using the talents of only 50% of the population.
It’s a fertile and shifting time. We are becoming increasingly aware of the systemic barriers that keep society and science from benefiting from women’s full contributions, but awareness isn’t enough. We must act. We must change.
NIH is working to do that. New policies and practices are in place to address sexual harassment at NIH, at the institutions we support, and anywhere NIH research activities take place. And NIH has just completed a survey of all staff and contractors to help assess NIH workplace climate and harassment.
It’s a start.
I’m proud to be a part of a group tasked with recommending what comes next. As part of the NIH Director’s Advisory Committee Working Group on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment, I have the opportunity to help redress wrongs and improve engagement. Together my colleagues and I will be looking for ways the institution can promote a safe and inclusive environment.
On a personal level, I work to effect that change by nudging my colleagues gently or, if needed, bluntly, when implicit bias, traditional thinking, or even malignant motives stand in the way of fair judgment or women’s rightful progression in science. And I try to engage all my colleagues, regardless of gender, in working toward ways to dismantle the barriers that hold women back.
Just as with scientific research itself, we need everyone’s full participation in the solution.
What guidance do you have for me about how to take up this important mantle?
Women scientists at NLM and throughout history.