Perspectives: Thriving in the Sciences as a Woman

March 7, 2017

We asked Erin Mack, an environmental microbiologist at DuPont, "How does a young woman survive and thrive in the sciences?" She reached out to her colleagues for their insights. 

As a woman, mid-career environmental microbiologist with a Ph.D. working in the chemical industry, I am fortunate to work with a group of excellent women engineers, geologists, chemists, and biologists. Women in STEM careers are the minority (for now). However, being of the minority gender for much of my career does not mean that it's been a grim, lonely slog over the last twenty five years. The vast majority of men I've worked with have been positive forces in my daily life as valued friends and mentors.

Having written that, I began to wonder, is my experience the norm? Is it specific to the field I'm in? Or am I clueless to when I've been dissed because of my gender? I suspect the answer to all three questions at different times might be "yes." To gain more perspective I canvassed my women friends and colleagues about how they would answer these questions. The following points are a distillation of these conversations; with my perspectives. And for young male scientists who are reading this, these tips will benefit your career as well!

Be Confident

Women's lack of self-confidence has been cited as a key reason for why we still have a pronounced gender gap in jobs and earnings. Not surprisingly, the subject of self-confidence came up a lot in my discussions. When I think of the role of confidence in my own career I think of "owning my expertise," meaning I know my input and experience are needed so I am responsible for making a contribution. One of my colleagues thinks of this as, "It's not fake it until you make it, it's fake it until you become it." She doesn't mean fake your credentials or knowledge, but rather, fake your sense of confidence and belonging until you do get comfortable. Another colleague's advice in this arena is to "never accept the first offer." You can think about this in terms of job offers, or in terms of applying to a job or pursuing an opportunity. Do not self-limit just because you might not fit the exact job description. Don't let fear of the new or different control your options. If pursuing an opportunity takes us out of our comfort zone, we need to remember that discomfort isn't wrong, but rather we're doing something new.

Be Persistent

Several colleagues noted that in the beginning, they needed to work a little harder to gain credibility and build trust in the work environment. One saw this as a challenge to demonstrate her fitness to do the job, and not a reflection of what she knows to be her abilities. Another pointed out that women often say "no" to opportunities. But if you know that you can do the job, then put yourself out there and apply for the job. Don't allow one rejection to determine the course of your career. To be successful, you need to be your own advocate and not wait to be recognized.

Seek Out Mentors

The mentor role can be filled by either women or men but support from a successful woman is extremely valuable when you're starting out. Your mentors and the issues you will need advice on will change as time goes on but it is important to expose yourself to a diversity of experiences and opinions. Honest feedback isn't always comfortable, but it sure is valuable.

Build and Maintain Your Networks

Career trajectories have changed dramatically in the last decade. You can't expect to spend an entire career at the same corporation or institution so to keep your options open, you will need to maintain and cultivate your networks at all levels of your professional sphere.

Find Your Balance and Know Yourself

The one constant in life is change. We need to find the balance between security and risk, personal and professional lives, passions and what pays the bills. The "right" balance in these areas will change over time so we need to know our core values, priorities, interests, and goals, so we can recognize and pursue opportunities as they arise or have the confidence to take a pass if they are not the right fit.

Apply the Golden Rule

If we want to be respected and given the opportunity to do well then we need to extend the same to others. Let's be supportive and encouraging of other women and their choices. There's plenty of opportunities out there in STEM careers and the success of one woman is a success for all of us. 

These rewarding discussions have been fascinating, thought provoking, and far more nuanced than I was able to cover here. I am so grateful to my colleagues for their candidness and time.

Dr. Elizabeth Erin Mack joined DuPont in 1999 as a member of the Corporate Remediation Group (CRG). In the CRG she serves as a technical expert in the areas of mercury fate and transport, biodegradation, and environmental microbiology. She currently serves as a technical resource and manages external research programs in these areas for DuPont. Dr. Mack has applied results from these external programs to address remediation of mercury, chlorinated solvents, and nitroaromatic compounds in the field.

Author: ASM Careers

ASM Careers
ASM Careers staff.