Like a lot of scientists, I am very goal-oriented, so after I got my Ph.D. in toxicology, I set out to become a leader in my field by the time I was 40. To get there, I knew I had to be acknowledged by the top researchers in my field, get invited to speak at important conferences, organize conferences, and publish in top journals. I’m happy to say that, with the support of my mentors, colleagues, family, and friends, I was able to achieve my goal.
It wasn’t without interesting blips along the way.
When I was in my 30s, I was invited to my first committee meeting full of senior researchers, and I was put into a small group to brainstorm about new program ideas for a funding agency. I recall that I was one of two women among the 40 people in the room. We were divided into groups of five, and we sat in little conversation circles. One of the men in my circle was a leading researcher from a prominent U.S. university. He was sitting next to me with his back turned, which, by the way, is difficult to do in a circle. His body language made it clear that he was uncomfortable with me being there, and every time I tried to speak, he cut me off. Trying to be polite, I just backed off and deferred to him because of his stature in the field. After a while, I realized that if I was going to participate at all, I had to forcefully insert myself into the conversation, and so I blurted out my idea. At that point, he turned to me and said, “Wow, that was a good idea. Now, who are you, little girl?”
Those were his exact words. He acknowledged me in a way—he looked at me, he knew I existed, he said that it was an interesting idea—but his words and his tone were cutting and demoralizing. The dynamic between us didn’t change until years later after I had interacted with him more frequently and started to genuinely compete with him on a scientific level.
Today, the attitude toward women working in the sciences is so much different than when I first started. I don’t often feel that I’m treated differently than anyone else at the table because of my gender. Sadly, though, it’s still true that I’m the only woman at the table in many of the meetings that I attend.
I wish I had good insight into how to increase the number of women scientists and leaders of scientific organizations. I do everything I can to encourage women already working in science, including mentoring some very talented women at NIST. We have some tremendous women here whom I hope will rise to leadership positions, and maybe even take my job someday.
I’m not ready to let go just yet, though.
Gender alone doesn’t indicate whether a leader will be good or bad, strong or weak, effective or ineffective. However, there are gender-specific differences that I think we should all pay attention to if we are to be effective leaders. For example, communication differences between male and female leaders have been studied extensively. We have some gender differences in the way we communicate, and that’s OK.
A few years ago, after reading an article on differences in gender communication styles, I asked my colleagues and friends, “How am I going to train all the men in the room to understand how women communicate?” But then I realized that the responsibility of the audience is only to listen openly. The speaker is in charge of communicating the message and effective communicators adapt communication styles to their audience. To communicate successfully, I think it’s my responsibility to be adaptive, to know my audience, to speak to the audience in a way they can understand.
Even though there are some gender-specific differences that are the subject of much study, general qualities of good leaders are the same for male and female leaders. The strongest leaders that I know work hard, love their jobs, think creatively, communicate their message effectively, take some risks, communicate their successes, and take ownership of their failures.
I found the most important thing for me while I was balancing my home life and work life—raising my three boys and managing an exciting career—was to be present. When there was an important meeting at work, I did everything I could to shuffle my family-related schedule to be there and to participate fully. When there was a conference deadline or when my boss urgently needed something, I prioritized those things. After my son Payton was born, I worked part-time for a few years. My boss once told me he felt like I was working full-time because I was always there when he needed me.
At home, I did the same thing. I prioritized the things that I thought were most important. I shifted my schedule so I could be there when the kids came home from school, and I made sure I could be there for teacher meetings and soccer games and school projects. I volunteered on Friday afternoons in the classroom. I made sure I was there for things that were most important in my children’s lives.
Still, I always felt guilty because I was worried I wasn’t giving enough of myself to either place. My guess is that most working parents feel that way. When my middle son was in high school, I told him that I felt guilty for not being home all the time like some of the other parents and that I felt that I was never doing enough. He said to me, “I don’t want you to be like other people. I think it’s so cool that you’re a mom who works and is so successful.” I didn’t try to hide who I was from him, and, as it turns out, he was proud of me. The thought of that still makes me smile.