‘Women in Science’ Series Tackles Sexism, Other Issues

The Martinos Center’s Allison Stevens and Emma Boyd have spearheaded efforts to address sexism in the research community. Photo by Caroline Magnain.

The MGH Martinos Center’s first-ever “Women in Science” seminar series, held this spring, brought together investigators, staff and others from throughout the community for a host of important and thought-provoking discussions. The series proved so successful the organizers are planning to hold another this fall, while also expanding the resources available to women in the Center and elsewhere.

The roots of these efforts can be traced back to early last year. On the heels of the 2017 Women’s March in Boston (as well as in Washington, DC, and in many other cities around the world) Allison Stevens, the Martinos Center’s faculty development liaison, organized a meeting with several female colleagues to talk about their experiences with sexism in their careers. She did so, she says, as a response to stories she was hearing from women in the Center about the issues they encountered. “I thought if everyone shared those stories with each other, they would see they were not alone. I also hoped speaking with each other could help us come up with solutions for when we would inevitably face the same issues again.”

In hearing about one anothers’ experiences Stevens and her colleagues in the meeting began to realize just how widespread the problem is in the science community. They decided to do something about it.

“It is important to shine a light on the issues women in science face, for a few reasons,” says Emma Boyd, a research technician in the Center who was part of those early discussions. “First, because awareness of what sexism looks like is lacking. As a consequence, not everyone is aware of their own biases and the harmful behaviors they may be unintentionally supporting. Catching these behaviors may immediately help create a more inclusive work environment. Second, because awareness of how and why science can (and does) exclude women and other minority groups is also lacking.

“And third, while it is very easy to turn a blind eye to inequalities, we should make every effort to address them. The science community is currently having a bit of its own ‘MeToo’ movement and the timing has never been better to have these discussions.”

Organized by Boyd—with support from Stevens and others—the series took place over nine sessions in April and May of this year. It included lectures, a panel and discussion groups covering a wide variety of topics, as well as a pair of mentor lunches. Among the many topics addressed was the pervasiveness of gender and racial bias in the scientific community. In three sessions (“Implicit and Explicit Race and Gender Bias in STEM,” a follow-up discussion group, and “How to Respond to Sexism in the Moment”), speakers and attendees addressed questions such as ‘Why do we have biases?,’ ‘What does bias look like?’ and ‘How can we be more aware of the implicit biases we hold?’ Exploring these questions—even just defining the underlying terms and concepts (sexism, racism, bias)—can help in identifying sexism in the workplace and determining the most appropriate ways to address it.

Boyd believes the Martinos Center is well positioned to take on the challenge of addressing sexism in the research arena. “Approximately 40% of the faculty and research fellows in the Center are female, according to the most recent estimate,” she says. “This percentage is significantly higher than the current estimate of the total share of women in the US STEM workforce (approximately 24%). Our community is unique in that we are more gender balanced than average. And on top of that, we have a fantastic community of passionate, bright individuals who have the potential to create social change in the science community.”

Indeed, they have already begun to do so. Boyd notes that several lab directors in the Center started incorporating discussions of sexism into their lab meetings after the Women in Science events helped to frame the issues and how best to address them.

With the inaugural seminar series now under their belt, the organizers are planning another, eight-week program of events in the fall. As part of this series, they are looking to expand the mentoring workshops, provide more resources on how to respond to sexism, hold negotiation workshops, and bring in new speakers to continue to address the challenges women in science face and the many ways they can take action.

In addition to these efforts, Boyd, Stevens and the others are working closely with a similar, newly established initiative at Mass General called “Women in Radiology.” Their first event with this group will be held in August. Finally, they are seeking to make the series more intersectional and accessible for other communities. To this end, they will be co-hosting an LGBTQ social at the Martinos Center in September.

Gary Boas