The Missing Link to Innovation and Inclusion

How Do We Get More Women in Science? – Wrong Question

Nature recently dedicated an entire issue to exploring how we can get more women in science.   As an MIT chemistry PhD and former McKinsey partner with 2 decades of experience helping scientific and other clients grow and innovate, I have a slightly different view on this issue. In science as in business, let’s start not with women, but ask, how we can grow empathetic and effective servant leaders who help others grow, including children? If we do that, we’d design different organizations, work environments, and leadership development models which would not only include women (and anyone else who wants/needs to be whole) but would also unleash innovation. Here is why and how. 

So rather than asking, “how can we get more women in science?” again, let’s ask:

1) how can we practice science with a human face?

2) how can we grow tenured professors and academic leaders who are both scientifically brilliant and empathetic?

3) how can we support people in science and elsewhere (women and men) who care for children (elderly parents, community, etc) as they progress in their careers so they can be whole leaders at 55 rather than burned out and cynical at 45?

Then, we would build a currency of empathy in academic science and scientific companies.  The talented women (and men) who lean into humanity would stay.

7 Responses to “How Do We Get More Women in Science? – Wrong Question”

  1. Steve Carlotti

    Good questions. I’ll offer some thoughts for what they are worth.

    1. I think the starting point is to start by admitting that scientists and academics are not infallible (indeed nobody is). I was a social science type of guy (after deciding physics problem sets were annoying) and almost nobody claims infallibility in the social sciences. It’s interesting to think about the difference on this dimension between the social sciences and humanities and the natural sciences. Part of empathy to me is a willingness to countenance the possibility that the other person’s point of view is as valid as yours. It’s hard to do this and maintain you are infallible.

    2. This one is harder. I think it would require an approach to academic funding that rewarded empathy in some way. Particularly at research institutions, it’s not obvious to me how one would accomplish this. The conceptual answer is the institution must be financially advantaged by having these types of academic leaders. The practical answer is certainly vexing.

    3. In some ways, I think if 1 and 2 were solved, we’d be a good portion of the way toward solving this one as well. If we rewarded empathy, we would have a system that rewarded a broader range of outcomes and a broader range of inputs.

  2. jackieacho

    Great points, as always Steve. You’re so right about #1; I had not thought about it that way. What’s fascinating and hopeful about #2 (brilliant and empathetic leaders) is that the best science is collaborative these days. Building interdisciplinary partnerships and centers does lead to what’s measured and valued (publications, research funding, philanthropy). Scientific collaborations are on the rise. Here are great stats

    I agree with you that 1 and 2 support 3. In the near term especially, we will need more systematic solutions (e.g., generous leaves for moms AND dads, part time options for both men and women which are still on leadership tracks) in place so we don’t get distracted when rising stars become parents. We must be anchored in a value for children AND including all of our talent, recognizing the unique power of parenting to awaken empathy and build rather than detract from leadership development for men and women alike.

    …and I can totally picture you as a physicist! You should have had Mrs. Schmitt in high school and Professor Cyrus Taylor from CWRU in college.

  3. jackieacho

    I am hearing from other people who enjoyed science….then didn’t, or just flat out hated it in school. I’ve heard it many, many times over the last 20 years. If this is true for you, you are not alone. So many people grow to hate chemistry/physics/STEM despite the fact that all children are naturally scientific/curious. We lose most of them along the way – some bored, but many turned off by the arrogance and judgment. We need teachers, scientists, and engineers who are willing and able to engage people in understanding their world and designing a more abundant future….whether they end up as researchers, lawyers, business people, or artists. Imagine how beautiful and productive that would be.

  4. Steve Carlotti

    I remember the day I decided to stop studying Physics. I was a freshman in college studying force and pulleys. I thought I had come up with a new way of quickly figuring out the mechanical advantage of a pulley. I went to see my professor (at my college courses were actually taught by professors). He heard me out and said something to the effect of, I’m not sure if that’s right or not so just do it the way it says to in the book.

    Interestingly, he was actually a pretty good prof in a lot of ways but that was the day the sciences lost me.

  5. Lynn-Ann Gries

    There are so many many issues wrapped up in this short blog post. I am one of those people who LOVED LOVED LOVED science in high school, but not in college I even started out Freshman year wanting to be a Chemistry major. As I look back, the major issue was the quality of the instruction. I had the MOST incredible science teachers in high school (shout out to Columbia High School in Maplewood NJ and Mr. Hoffman (physics), Mr. Ghegan(chemistry) and Mrs. Stewart (biology)!) Why did I get turned off in college? I’m guessing the main reason was poor teaching. I’m the kind of person who needs teachers who are engaging and turned on, passionate about what they are teaching. I think I had a few who were just going through the motions and I tuned out. I untimately gravitated toward the departments in college with the most engaging teachers. I know this sounds reactionary and short sighted but many 18-19 year olds make decisions this way. I just didn’t have the stamina to stick with the lousy professors; Lousy in terms of teaching, i am sure they were very accomplished according to their colleagues (publishing etc.) What does all of this mean? Something that is at the very heart of academia; that the most accomplished (in terms of publishing etc.) professors don’t always make the best teachers. Colleges and universities need to grade their faculty on TEACHING abililty, how much the students love them in the classroom, not on their research and other non-student-related activities. That might be blasphemy, but I think it would revolutionize teaching and learning. As for how to allow for women/men to raise children while continuing to live fulfilling work lives, that is something i can tackle in another post…

  6. Monica Tanase-Coles

    Jackie, Steve, I tutored students for over 20 years, with ages varying from 9 to 52 years old. Whenever I hear “I hated Physics in school”, my invariable response is “you must not have had a good teacher”. My wild guess never fails. How can one hate the science that at its core describes the everyday miracle of the reality that surrounds us? Learning and using it for innovation should be fun and exciting. It is only when the teacher doesn’t truly understand the subject and is therefore insecure, and when (s)he lacks empathy, that one turns off the freshman who is excited by a new way of looking at pulleys… Such a pity.

    By the way, I “hated” chemistry in school. Guess how great my teachers were…

  7. jackieacho

    Great comments, Lynn-Ann and Monica. Yes, everything begins and ends with teaching/advising/mentoring. I had wonderful high school and college teachers (Mrs. Beverly Schmitt at North Farmington High School and Professors Seyhan Ege and Brian Coppola at University of Michigan). I enjoyed having “molecular vision” as a result. Mrs. Schmitt also taught physics, so she seemed able to answer so many of our “why?” questions from first principles. Professor Ege helped me understand that we can ask questions and answer them through research. She also had a mystical way of reconciling science and spirituality. Without these people, there is no way I would have pursued chemistry. Hats off to all the great science teachers out there. We can’t appreciate them enough, and there is a need for many more.


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