Promoting Women in Science: A Conversation with Marcia McNutt

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Promoting Women in Science: A Conversation with Marcia McNutt


Rachel Kaufman, Contributing Writer 

Geophysicist Marcia McNutt knows a thing or two about women in science. Throughout her career, she’s taken the top job at organizations that had typically hired men for the job: she was the first female president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Research Institute, the first female director of the US Geological Survey (USGS), the first female editor of Science, and, as of last year, the first female president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

In an interview with her former colleagues at Science in 2016, she said she sees her job at NAS as improving reproducibility and ethics, guiding the public’s understanding of science, and promoting women in science.1 To hear more about that last point, Observer sat down with McNutt to learn what barriers women face in science—and physics—and how we can overcome them. —Rachel Kaufman

Did you ever feel like there were things women couldn’t do?

I never felt that. I think that the fact that I went to an all-girls school made a difference. It wasn’t until I got to college that I encountered the first sexist comment in my life. And by then I was 18, so my reaction was, well, what’s wrong with you?

You’ve shattered multiple glass ceilings in your life. What’s your reaction to this?

[I have] sort of a mixed view. Take the USGS. When I got to the USGS, there were so many capable women in other leadership roles there that I guess my reaction was, “Well gosh, isn’t it long past time for a woman to be in the top job here?”

The percentage of bachelor’s degrees earned by women in STEM, and in physics specifically, has flattened out over the past decade. What do we do about this?

We don’t have this problem in biology, we don’t seem to have this problem in chemistry. Women are overrepresented in biology [at the undergraduate level]. The fact that this is an issue in physics. . . . It’s important that they compare themselves to the fields that don’t have the problem. Is it a problem with the climate? What is it that they aren’t doing to attract women? Women tend to thrive in climates where they are rewarded when they can work collaboratively; it’s not hypercompetitive.

What can people do in their own workplaces and schools to help women succeed?

I’m a strong proponent of informal mentoring and networking. I think it’s really important. I’ve visited so many colleges and universities where I’ve seen women with virtually no to little resources do wonderful things just by helping each other.

When I was at MIT, we started a sort of brown-bag lunch discussion group because we had a large number of female graduate students in the geosciences and we felt that the female grad students were thinking too narrowly about career paths. Students looked at the women on the faculty and felt that female graduates should be thinking about going into academia, whereas our discussion group felt there were many things female graduates could do—they could go into industry or government. We invited back graduates from MIT to talk to the current students about what they liked about their jobs. We advertised this for women students, but the men came too.

What are larger pro-women policy changes people should push for at their workplaces?

I’ve written editorials2 about how I think tenure is the most female-unfriendly policy we have. Tenure comes at the same time as the biological clock is ticking.

I think we need to rethink how we evaluate faculty constantly throughout their career for how they are contributing in many ways to the university.

Any time you change anything in the oldest institutions, save the Vatican, in which the people who are a part of it still walk around in medieval robes, obviously it’s going to be very difficult to do.

As president of NAS, what issues around women in science will you be championing?

Obviously I would like to increase the proportion of women who are in the Academy. That’s one thing we can clearly do.

[We also want to] look at the additional burdens that women carry within the university and other workplaces. Women are doing more of the advising, more of the mentoring, more of the committee work, and they tend not to get credit for it. So one thing we need to do is figure out how to balance the load, or give women credit for the extra work they are doing.

[I’d like to see] exit surveys when women [undergraduates] change fields. It’d be interesting to know why women switch from a physics major to pursue something else. Because if it actually is the climate in physics, it would be good to know that. If it is instead a perception of the job market, then you would expect equal amounts of men and women to leave. Unless women are smarter than men and notice [the job market] more. And I could believe that. //


How Can You Help?

Robin Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School, told the online publication Mashable1 that the stereotype of the "queen bee" woman at the top is incorrect; most women do want to help other women.

Here are a few ways women at all levels, whether students, faculty members, or working professionals, can help.

Try amplification

This technique made headlines last fall when female White House staffers revealed they'd been employing this strategy: when a woman made an important point in a meeting, another woman would repeat it, loudly, giving credit to the originator. They came up with this technique after noticing that women in meetings were being talked over or their ideas were being appropriated by men.

Watch your implicit bias

Everyone—men and women—can fall prey to implicit bias. If you find yourself responding negatively to a woman, ask yourself if you'd feel the same way if the person was a man. As a first step, try taking an Implicit Association Test at Harvard's Project Implicit; it takes about five minutes and can show that many people hold biases they don't even know to be there.

Don't worry too much about “leaning in.”

Arianna Huffington told Sheryl Sandberg2 —who coined the phrase “lean in” in 2013—that she endorses a French phrase that loosely translates to "leaning back in order to jump higher." "Part of leaning in means not trying to outdo men chasing a lawed notion of success," she said.

Repeat: "I don't shine if you don't shine."

Writer Ann Friedman coined "shine theory" to mean that women should surround themselves with other witty, accomplished women, not feel intimidated by them. "I want the strongest, happiest, smartest women in my corner," she wrote in 2013.3


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