by Joan Steitz
Higher Education is another of the themes highlighted by UNESCO as part of its 60th anniversary year. To mark the occasion, Dr. Joan Steitz of Yale University writes of her personal experience as a student and her firm belief that female role models are vital to repairing the “leaky pipeline” that robs science of women with potential.
by Joan Steitz, Yale University, US, L’OREAL-UNESCO For Women In Science Laureate 2001 North America
When I was about to graduate from college with a degree in Chemistry in the early 1960's, I decided that my best future course was to attend Medical School. I had known several women physicians, so this seemed a reasonable choice. On the other hand, I had also had the good fortune to work as an undergraduate assistant in several laboratories pioneering the exciting new science of molecular biology. That exposure had opened a new page for me. I was enthralled by what future research using the knowledge that DNA-makes-RNA-and-RNA-makes-protein might uncover as molecular explanations for the genetic phenomena that had captured my curiosity in high school.
I did not in fact ever attend Medical School. The summer before I was to enroll at Harvard, I was given my own research problem and left pretty much alone to solve it while my mentor Joseph Gall packed his boxes to move from the University of Minnesota to Yale University. By the beginning of August I was so thoroughly consumed by the joy of making my own discoveries in the lab that I decided I must pursue a PhD in molecular biology.
However, even as a graduate student, I never anticipated teaching, having my own lab or directing research at a major university. Since I had left high school, I had never had a woman instructor in any math or science course. There were no women on the science faculties of any of the Universities I knew about. Instead, I anticipated I would be a research associate in some male's lab (that was the role of female researchers) and contribute in a modest way by pursuing (I hoped) my own research project within a larger protective canopy.
My horizons changed only at the end of my postdoctoral stint in England when the Women's Revolution in the US made Universities want to hire women on their faculties. I was exceedingly nervous about accepting a "real job" because I knew I had not prepared myself to be a faculty member in the same way that my male colleagues had. Even today, I find from conversations with young women that they are frightened by the prospects of what lies ahead because so few women seem to have "made it" in academic science without encountering difficulties.
We cannot expect to capture the interest and talents of girls and women for the scientific enterprise unless they can view their own participation as possible. That is why the situation today is so much better than it was when I began--at least a few success stories are evident even in areas of science where women are still grossly underrepresented. But there remains much to be done. Although there are fields where the numbers of undergraduate and graduate women are equivalent to those of men, a leaky pipeline robs us of their full participation. Our challenge now is to devise more effective practices in our Universities and other research venues for capturing and advancing women in the scientific hierarchy.