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Things Your Professor Should Have Told You

By Alice S. Huang

Learning from 30 years of experiences about gaining more power for women scientists

January 2002

Alice S. Huang is a Faculty Associate in Biology at the California Institute of Technology. She was
previously Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Dean for
Science at New York University and Professor of Biology. She is a member of the National Academy of
Sciences Committee on Women in Science and Technology, the National Science Foundation’s
Advisory Committee for Education and Human Resources, the National Aeronautics & Space
Agency’s Astrobiology Task Force, and Public Agenda in New York. Dr. Huang received her training at
Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins University with honorary doctorates of science from Wheaton
College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the Medical College of Pennsylvania. She is a fellow of the
Academia Sinica in Taiwan (1991), American Women in Science (1998), the Academy of
Microbiology, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1999).


AS RECENTLY as thirty years ago, when the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) was founded, it was not
uncommon for male professors to ask female graduate students “Why do you want to go into
science when you can be at home raising beautiful babies?” A lot has changed since then. Over
60% of married women and 78% of women with children now work outside the home.
Many jobs previously thought to be unsuitable for women are now available to them. Women
visibly participate in every part of society. Yet recent surveys show some disturbing trends. A larger percentage
of women entered the science professions in the 1970s than in the 1990s. Barriers to
women’s career advancement, although they are more subtle, still exist. How can we remove those
barriers? How can we encourage young women to enter the sciences and become successful science

Gaining Opportunity, Equality, and Power

In 1995, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in Beijing that women will
contribute fully when they have opportunity, equality, and power. In reviewing changes over
the past thirty years, we can say that women have largely gained equal access to opportunity.
But equality and power still elude many. Without full equality and effective power, we
cannot contribute fully to society. More importantly, we cannot better our own lives or
those of our daughters. To gain full equality, we must gain power. Therefore, power should
become our next focus.

How do we gain power? It is not a disgrace to want power and to wield power, especially
when it is for a common good. We tend to forget that having power, being in control, can
be exhilarating. To gain it, we can try to shame others into giving up power, but those men who
have it are not likely to give it up voluntarily. We can lobby government agencies to pass laws
that will protect and help women, as we have done effectively in the past. However, such laws
cannot effect a transfer of power. We can ask both public and private funding agencies to provide
grants as incentives or rewards for hiring and promoting women into positions of power, as
has been done with limited success. We can provide a list of “best practices” to help institutions
attract, retain, and promote more women. But all these efforts depend on persuasion, and
effecting real change is likely to take decades.

Because external power is not readily within the reach of many women, we need to focus on
self-empowerment. This is within our control but, unfortunately, it is not often done. Much
can be gained if we practice self-empowerment as well as empowerment of one another. Selfempowerment
means celebrating and supporting women as well as sharing our experiences and
educating each other about what leads to success. This empowers each other and ourselves.

Let me share with you what I have learned in my career as an academic scientist and university
administrator about power and empowerment. It is important to understand power and how to
gain power in our own right. My examples are from the biomedical sciences because that is
what I know best. Nevertheless, the ideas are applicable to women-and some men-in other
areas of science and beyond academia.

Learning the Academic Structure

My advice begins with understanding the structure and culture of the working
environment. In higher education, as in many professions, individuals pass through specific
gates in the natural progression of careers. Each of these gates is marked by a title change and an
increase in salary corresponding to years of experience. We are familiar with the academic
ladder beginning with postdoctoral fellow, promotion to assistant professor, to associate
professor, and so on. If one chooses not to follow this well-defined path, there are other
routes to take, but it means getting off the academic ladder. Defining a new career structure
can be rewarding, but often getting off the ladder results in difficulties and disillusionment.
For example, a research associate position is commonly sold as a job with less stress and
more freedom to pursue research. In truth, there may be less stress, but freedom is illusory.
Proceeding along this path provides a chance to gain research experience but not commensurate
increases in salary or public recognition. As the years go by, increased professional isolation
takes its toll; despite maturity and experience, reversing this projection and getting back on the
academic ladder is extremely difficult.

Another reason to leave the usual career path is financial. Sometimes, there may be an offer to be a research associate or a laboratory director. Taking a lucrative but subordinate position with a faculty member at
the university can be a compelling incentive to jump off the academic ladder. Often this move is based on
promises of increased responsibility. However, the once lucrative salary quickly reaches a ceiling. Further
advancement is limited and job stability depends on the tenure of the faculty boss at the institution.
Should the faculty member not gain tenure or decide to move to another institution, it may be difficult
to gain an equivalent well-paid position with another faculty member.

Leaving academia and joining another structured environment, such as the biotechnology
industry, offers financial rewards and unusual challenges. However, once this route is taken,
proprietary information may limit publication and getting back on the academic ladder
becomes more difficult if not impossible. If one succeeds in returning to the university, however,
there is a substantial reduction in income. Although there may be good reasons for
taking these different paths, it is important to be fully aware of the consequences of such choices,
especially when they are made early in one’s career. In the academic culture, falling off the
academic ladder means leaving the usual path to advancement, security, and recognition. More
importantly, these other routes do not lead to power within the academic structure.

Starting Off Right

Once the structure of the organization is understood, it is necessary to be successful within
that organization. To do so means fulfilling the expectations of the organization. The first
independent position, usually as an assistant professor, is very demanding. It becomes
necessary to teach, attract, and mentor trainees, to set up a laboratory, and to organize independent
research. This is a crucial time for concentrating on one’s career. Personal issues that intrude at
this time may be detrimental.

Unlike students and postdoctorates, an assistant professor cannot accomplish her
responsibilities alone. No individual, no matter how capable, can do all that is needed at this
stage as a loner. Team sports teach about cooperation and interdependence- use that
knowledge. Building support, seeking out advisors, and forming meaningful relationships
with colleagues are essential at this time in your career. There are many ways to accomplish this.

First, other women, especially secretaries and technicians, are there to offer support, and
they can be tremendously helpful, especially if they think they are respected in return and are
appreciated for their contributions. Delegate, delegate, delegate! Delegating routine, timeconsuming
tasks is necessary, no matter how well or easily you can do them yourself. When
I was an assistant professor the all-female typing pool supported me and worked on my grants
and manuscripts first. Through them, I learned about the subtle, nontransparent value system
at Harvard Medical School. When I discovered that my starting salary was lower than that of
men hired at about the same time, these long time staffers helped me to negotiate a salary
adjustment quietly and behind the scenes, so that I did not embarrass my supervisor.
They saved me from appearing to be strident and demanding.

Support can come from peers as well. All too often, we compete against other assistant professors,
because in some institutions only a few survive the promotion process. A way around this
competition is to seek out those at the same stage in other departments or institutions, particularly
women or individuals who share similar scientific interests. We all need reality checks with peers so
that we can judge whether a situation that is new to us is unusual or expected. Peer support can
also provide relief in fulfilling obligations during emergencies: when I could not give a lecture, a fellow faculty member from another institution filled in for me. The students welcomed this
change and my supervisors were none the wiser about my dereliction.

Support from mentors and senior professors must be cultivated, especially support of
thesis and postdoctoral advisors. I am surprised at how many trainees burn those
bridges unaware that future employers and promotion committees will return to old
advisors and department chairs for recommendations. It is not enough, however, to
maintain cordial contact with these mentors. Seek out scientific leaders and those whom
you respect in your chosen field. Make sure your department chair and your dean know
something about your work. It never hurts to send a packet of your reprints to all these
individuals. Even better, send them preprints because those are more likely to be read. Ask
them for advice and help when you need them. Most senior faculty are flattered when
asked and are more than willing to help.

Avoid a Common Pitfall

It is likely that male professors will become your mentors, so it is important to be
aware that the ugly head of sexual tensions may turn up when you least expect it. Such
topics are usually not discussed because they are difficult. A good mentor is likely to
become a friend. Be business-like and professional at all times. Sometimes it will be
up to you to defuse tensions and make the men around you feel comfortable. Remember
that you can be friends with your mentor’s wife and show that you are not a threat.
Jealousy on her part will inhibit mentoring by her husband. Any sexual innuendo can diminish
your credibility and ruin your career. Be very careful! These are sensitive issues and it is
better to be aware of them than to turn a blind eye.

A Word About Extracurricular Activities

Assistant professors before tenure need to use extracurricular time judiciously. Do not
volunteer to be on any more committees than you have to. Gauge the value of the committee
in terms of career networking and advancement. Committees to gather data on other women, to
help run joint service centers like animal facilities, or to advise graduate students are
often offered to women faculty. These are time-consuming and should be avoided if
possible. It may be difficult to say no to some of these committees, but at this point in your
career it is necessary to stay focused on the academic ladder. Pick visible, leadership roles
within the institution as well as those that will enhance your national scientific reputation.

Join professional organizations and volunteer for leadership positions in those
organizations. Professional gatherings provide a wealth of informal information beyond the
scientific exchanges and permit you to compare your situation with many others. Information
gleaned at such meetings will make you more effective on the job and the colleagues you meet
may become part of your national support team.

Be a Good Mentor

Learn how to be an effective mentor yourself. Do not be more critical of female
students than of male students. Do not be a perfectionist; many women scientists set
extraordinarily high standards for themselves and for others. Promoting the best in your
students will ensure a stream of trainees. However, being critical of their every effort will
frustrate and turn off students. At a time when students are still unsure of their own capabilities
and prioritizing their own commitments, particularly young women, they need all the
encouragement they can get in order to stay in the race. They do not need what is called “tough
love”. Learn to compliment your trainees and junior women faculty. Compliment them not
only in their presence but also in their absence. You will empower them by these actions. All too
often, women faculty and students do not receive the positive feedback and recognition
they deserve.

Make Your Work Visible, Known, and Valuable

Do not imagine that by simply working hard and being an excellent scientist you will be
recognized and promoted automatically. Publishing is essential. Do not delay publication waiting for
that piece of data that will make it more perfect or that will make a more complete story. Your
work is your life’s blood and communicating it whenever and wherever you have the chance
will advance your career.

Even that is usually not enough. Helping someone else get a job done may be gratifying,
but unless you lay some claim for what you have done, the credit will go to others. Some selfpromotion
is necessary. Seek credit. Make oral or written annual reports letting department
chairs or deans know about your accomplishments and awards. Ask for promotions and salary
increases. Do not expect them to come your way unless your organization has a transparent
policy applied evenly to everyone. Notify the school paper or magazine when an award comes
your way so that it will be properly publicized. Ask supportive colleagues to make award
nominations or to suggest you for better positions.

Finally, do not ignore the finances of everything you do. Money talks. Bringing in an extra
grant or an umbrella grant will empower you. Obtain a fair salary that reflects your importance
in the organization. If your salary provides extra income, try contributing to your own institution
or to philanthropy and see the added benefits such actions will bring. In fact, understanding
and using the power of money is one of the first steps to rising into powerful management positions.

Once in Power . . .

Although some power will accrue at every level in academia, the power to change institutions really
exists at the full professorial or administrative positions. There is a caveat. Polly Bunting, a past
president of Radcliffe, said, “Once you are in a position of power do not forget that you are still
a woman.” She was afraid that in climbing the academic ladder women would adopt the masculine
culture and identify only with the male power structure. I advised that early in your
career you need to focus primarily on the imperatives of the academic ladder, but once in
power there are many things a woman can do to help other women. Besides hiring and promoting
more women, the lives of women faculty can be empowered by powerful individuals acting in
ways noted in the following list:

  • Review compensations, start-up packages, office and laboratory spaces, and access to
    institutional resources every now and then to ensure equity between male and
    female faculty.
  • Provide discretionary dollars to faculty from an institutional source when special
    circumstances dictate the need.
  • Introduce faculty to lucrative consulting activities or other extramural opportunities
    as appropriate.
  • Make women faculty aware of such opportunities and how to qualify for them.
  • Avoid overloading women faculty with teaching and committee responsibilities.
  • Provide effective mentoring and timely reviews.
  • Nominate women for awards and other kinds of recognition.
  • Develop complete intolerance for the casual discrediting or minimizing of women’s
    contributions and accomplishments.
  • Make sure that the bar is not set higher for women than for men.
  • Cooperate with other institutions to provide jobs for accompanying spouses.
  • Provide a menu of benefits for all
  • Provide well-run, inexpensive daycare centers, as well as emergency childcare.

Many of these recommendations are found in recent national reports on the status of
women and resonate with women who have long been in the academy. Some institutions
have already incorporated some of these “best practices” and have found that doing so did not
bankrupt the institution. Practicing all these recommendations will go a long way in
improving the “chilly climate in academia for women” and will help retain more women for
the long haul. Only when more women gain and use power can we bring about real and
lasting change.


Recommended Readings:
N. Barcelo. National Initiative for Women in Higher Education: Improving campus climates and the status
of women in higher education
. Executive Summary (see www.umn.edu/women/wihe/home.html).

S. Estrich. Sex and Power. New York: Riverhead Books, Penguin Putnam, 2000.

E. J. McCaffrey. Taxing Women. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

V. Valian. Why So Slow? Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998.

*This manuscript was presented, in part, at the Conference on Shaping a National Agenda for Women
in Higher Education, University of Minnesota, March 27-29, 2000. Reprinted with permission from AWIS
Magazine, Vol 30, Num 2.

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