For Women Scientists, Career Advice from a Certified Genius

28. October 2010

By Patricia Daukantas

Women have made huge gains in their pursuit of higher education: More than 50 percent of today’s U.S. bachelor’s degree recipients are female. However, women are still not getting as many of the topmost positions in science as their male counterparts. Why?

According to OSA Fellow Michal Lipson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University (U.S.A.), women must work to combat subtle forms of discrimination that may cause them to be overlooked or their work to be ignored. Lipson is a rising star in science, and she recently shared her experiences and advice with the Minorities and Women in OSA gathering at OSA’s annual meeting in Rochester, N.Y.

Last month, Lipson became one of two OSA members to win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for her work on silicon photonic circuits. She’s also a married mother of two and a tenured professor. Here's how she advises women who want to advance their scientific careers.

Be confident. Lipson said she cannot count the number of times that she and a male colleague got introduced to someone, and the person to whom they spoke addressed only the male colleague. The best way to combat this is with confidence. She advises: “When you are in a lecture, always sit in the front of the hall and ask a question.” Don’t be afraid to stand tall and give your opinion. “Remember that your career is just as important as anyone else’s,” she says.

Prioritize your career. One subtle form of discrimination is the notion that a woman’s career is always secondary to child-rearing. This message is pervasive. Even Lipson’s parents, who were the biggest supporters of her and her twin sister when they were growing up, told their daughters that they had to make an impact in their careers before they had children, “If I were male, they would never have said that,” she says. (Her twin sister is now an astrophysicist.)

But family and career need not be mutually exclusive. Make your career a priority by planning ahead and working with your partner to decide which roles each of you will take on, Lipson said. Often, men simply aren’t aware of work-and-family issues because they weren’t raised to think about them. However, by working together as a team, both partners can have fulfilling careers and family lives.

Lipson has strong family bonds with her husband, Hod Lipson, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell, and their two sons, ages 6 and 13. The kids do well in school and they are extremely proud of their parents. They like to brag about Lipson’s MacArthur award to their classmates.

Keep your personal life personal. When Lipson—born in Israel, raised in Brazil and trained in Israel—first came to the United States as a postdoc, all the men in her department talked about their kids, while Lipson avoided mentioning hers. Her cover was blown one day when her 1-year-old got sick; her boss called her at home and heard crying in the background. The next day, he asked her, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Yes, it’s a double standard, but keeping your personal life personal may help women to avoid subtle forms of discrimination against working mothers.

Lay down your career path early. Despite all the advances in society, women are often the ones who follow their male partners when it comes to job relocation. Academic couples face a particularly daunting challenge known as the “two-body problem,” which refers to the difficulty of finding two viable tenure-track positions—often in different specialties—within the same geographical area. The longer a woman takes to “find herself,” the greater the chances that she may wind up following a spouse or partner who has already determined a career path. “It is critical for you to lay down your career path early, even if you change it later,” Lipson says.

Synchronize your job hunt with your partner’s. Lipson’s husband delayed his post-graduate-school job hunt for six months so that they could search together. If your partner is not in academia, you should still try to synchronize, Lipson says; schools are well aware of the need for spousal employment. 

Patricia Daukantas is a freelance writer specializing in optics and photonics. She holds a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Maryland.

 

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