Full House at Life Sciences Laboratories Considers Pathways and Potholes for Women in Science

Volume Editor Anna Branch with co-authors Laurel Smith-Doerr and Laura Hirshfield

Some sixty members of the University community turned out for the launch of a new volume of research that offers new insights on the realities of women's careers in science. The volume, entitled Pathways, Potholes, and the Persistence of Women in Science: Reconsidering the Pipeline (Lexington Books), is edited by UMass Professor of Sociology and Chancellor's Faculty Advisor for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence  Dr. Enobong (Anna) Branch. With an introduction by Dr. Craig Martin, Professor of Chemistry at UMass Amherst, the panel of three of the volume's authors drew from research across academic and industry science settings to illustrate the supports and constraints that shape women's journeys through careers in science.

Dr. Branch explained the volume's guiding metaphor of a road, with on-ramps, exits, and obstacles, as a more realistic and useful depiction of women's science career context than the ubiquitous image of "the pipeline."  While the pipeline image suggests a linear process whereby women travel passively into, through, and out of the science professions, the image of a road directs attention to the diverse contexts of science itself and to the agency of women who must choose how to navigate those contexts in their science careers. Branch gave the example of Black women in computer science to illustrate how intersecting combinations of social identities, formative experiences, and institutional environments enable some women of color to persist in their science careers despite the real constraints and hostility they face, while others get stuck or "choose" exit. She noted that leaders in the field can do more to support women in navigating the potholes and pathways they encounter by attending to the nuances of who stays and who exits, under which conditions, and with which tools.

Dr. Laurel Smith-Doerr, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for Social Science Research at UMass Amherst, showed the specific interactional moments and contexts that can spark the "crisis of confidence" that is so detrimental to the development of women's successful careers in science. Extending an extensive literature on expertise, Smith-Doerr and her collaborators studied young scientists in four labs across institutional contexts and found marked differences in  how young men and women performed (or obscured) their scientific expertise, and in how the actors and institutions around them both shaped and responded to their self-representations. Notably, they found that differences in the interactional context--the degree of hierarchy,  incentives for collaboration, and gendered perceptions and performances of senior lab members and principal investigators--play a crucial role in shaping the development of confident expertise at this crucial intersection of age and gender. Lab leadership, Smith-Doerr suggested, can do much to shape this context by favoring collaborative work arrangements and attending to how their own behaviors create and reinforce gendered barriers.

Dr. Laura Hirshfield, Assistant Professor in the Departments of Medical Education and Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, delved further into the social construction of expertise in chemistry laboratories, differentiating the gendered dynamics around its constituent knowledges. She characterized these building blocks of expertise as analogous to cooking: "explicit knowledge" being like the recipe or formal instruction, "tacit knowledge" being that experiential wisdom about what to expect and how to respond, and "local knowledge" being the site-specific insight into quirks and oddities of the people and objects in a given setting. Her research shows that while men and women are nearly equally represented in the "pipeline" of chemistry labs, specific gendered practices favor men's ability to display explicit and tacit knowledge, and so enact the impression management that allows one to be recognized as an expert. These ranged from the tendency for men to be assigned to master new technologies in the lab to women's learned deference in speech and body language. These add up to a pattern where women are recognized more for lab-specific local knowledge than for the explicit and tacit knowledge that constitutes the chemist's "expertise." 

In discussion, audience questions emphasized the double bind women (and particularly women of color)  face in the sciences and academy writ large: chastised for their lack of confidence in self-representation, they are also rejected if they are "too" assertive, or fail to perform the low-status nurturing and housekeeping role associated with their gender. Dr. Branch tied this insight to the book's underlying premise--that women are not passively moving through the pipeline of science careers, but must choose how to perform their gender and expertise in ways that allow them to move ahead in different interactional contexts and, in some cases, to decide whether "sticking it out" is worth the price that context seems to exact.

Those building and leading research teams in the sciences can learn much from the authors' and this volume's observations about how the actions they take shape the pathways of women's scientific careers. The book is available for purchase online, and those interested may use this order form for a 30% discount.