Women Breaking Barriers in Genomics
Claudia Gonzaga-Jauregui, PhD Dr. Claudia Gonzaga-Jauregui is a geneticist and genomicist. She is a principal researcher at the International Laboratory of Human Genome Research, Laboratorio Internacional de Investigación sobre el Genoma Humano (LIIGH), Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Dr. Gonzaga-Jaurgui’s work focuses on applying genomic technologies to novel gene discovery, diagnostics, and therapeutic development in rare disorders and Mendelian phenotypes in families. She is co-editor of The Genomics of Rare Diseases: Understanding Disease Genetics Using Genomic Approaches (2021) with James R. Lupski.
“What I want to accomplish now is to make it a reality that genomics can be fair, can be equitable around the world. We have the technology. We can do this type of analysis, and the country where you’re born shouldn’t be a limit to whether you get an early diagnosis or not.”
Kathryn T. Hall, PhD, MPH Dr. Kathryn Tayo Hall is a molecular biologist and deputy commissioner of the Boston Public Health Commission. Her work is multifaceted and entails leading the Center for Public Health, Science, Technology and Innovation and collaboration with the Office of Racial Equity and Diversity and the Child and Family Health Bureau. Dr. Hall is also the director of basic and translational research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Her forthcoming book, Placebos, part of the MIT Essential Knowledge Series, explores the biological power of the placebo effect.
“The invisibility that I’ve experienced throughout my career has been profound…people don’t expect to see me as a scientist…This invisibility has been really hard for me and sometimes it hurts. If I didn’t know as much as I knew about the brain, I think it would hurt more. I’m not excusing it. I have a call to action that we need to wake up and see who’s in front of us and examine our biases for why we can’t see people.”
Diane Jofuku Okamuro, PhD Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro is a plant molecular geneticist and a program director for the plant genome research program cluster at the National Science Foundation (NSF). During her 25-year career, Dr. Okamuro has worked in academic and corporate settings focused on plant developmental and molecular biology research. She was one of the first plant geneticists hired at the plant biotech company Ceres where she applied cutting-edge genomics technologies to improve crop plants and generate new high-yield energy crops for biofuels. Dr. Okamuro was recruited to the NSF in 2005 by a cadre of pioneering women geneticists, including Mary Clutter, Machi Dilworth, Jane Silverthorne, Judy St. John, and Kay Simmons.
“It has been a goal since the day I stepped into my role as a program director. I want to help broaden participation of groups that are underrepresented in STEM…I want to help anyone who would like a career in science, and I think one of the things that I truly believe is that access to genomics technologies and resources levels the playing field for everyone, and it opens up career opportunities in all fields of science.”
Dr. Christina Vallianatos, PhD Dr. Christina Vallianatos is a scientist, educator, and the current Genomic Education & Outreach Program Manager at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. Her areas of professional expertise and interest include molecular neuroepigenetics research, science outreach and education, and patient advocacy. In addition to teaching in high school, college, and community-based programs, she leads professional development for teachers in the Teaching the Genome Generation program. Dr. Vallianatos is an online genomics literacy tool creator and a graduate bioinformatics instructor at Tufts University. During her graduate studies at the University of Michigan, she also founded Michigan DNA Day, which began an annual day of service during which scientists share their work with students and teachers in public schools.
“My smoother sailing has been because the women around me have been able to break a lot more ground and make my path smoother. And that’s what I’m hoping to do in my own way for the people that come after me. I’ve benefited so much from all sorts of folks, trailblazing and supporting me, and I want to do the same for the next generation…I want to make it easier for those in my community that I can help.”
A Short History of Gender Equity in Genomics and Genetics
“The ultimate goal for any scientist is to be able to help the public understand what science can do for them, to give them a basic knowledge of the science, so that they can make informed decisions about their life, their health.”
Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro
Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer who made pioneering contributions to our understanding of the structure of DNA in 1953. The key discovery was in her famous “photo 51”, which went formerly unrecognized for 15 years. In 1962, her three male colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering double helix DNA chains.
Still, her work was not acknowledged until 1968, when Dr. James Watson credited Rosalind Franklin’s achievements in his memoir. Unfortunately, by then, Rosalind Franklin wasn’t alive to receive recognition: she passed away without being celebrated for her groundbreaking work that contributed to our now fundamental knowledge of genomics.
The exclusion of women from professional recognition in science fields is only a fraction of their struggles. In recent years, there has been an alarming rate of abandonment among female researchers in genomics, indicating deeper problems and attitudes toward hiring and nurturing their talents.
Despite beginning their academic journey in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) on equal footing, women researchers are slipping through the cracks at every stage of graduate studies. By 2020, there were only 33 percent of female researchers in North America, and from 2001 to 2020, only 13 percent of Nobel Prize recipients were women. More must be done to create pathways for these talented scientists and promote gender equity within the scientific community.
Gender equity in STEM is essential for global progress. Without diverse perspectives and balanced representation, research initiatives become biased toward traditionally privileged voices that prioritize a limited segment of society—leaving behind people already marginalized or disadvantaged by existing systems.
Additionally, an imbalance leads to products and services developed from these incomplete views, which can have far-reaching implications on overall health and safety standards. By embracing gender balance within the STEM fields, we ensure collective growth toward a more equitable future for everyone.
Ensuring that STEM opportunities are equitable for all requires proactive measures to close the large representation gap between male, female, and non-binary scientists. We need an active movement toward creating a future where everyone has access to career advancement in these cutting-edge disciplines regardless of gender identity.
Four groundbreaking female scientists shared inspiring stories highlighting the challenges of attaining equity in leadership roles within genetics and genomics. We offer this honest dialogue to celebrate the accomplishments of these women and hope that it will motivate aspiring leaders from historically underrepresented backgrounds to pursue STEM leadership careers.
Women in Research: The Numbers
The number of PhDs awarded to women (US citizens and permanent residents) has exceeded the number awarded to men (US citizens permanent residents) since 2002. What’s more, in the 20 years from 1995 to 2015, the number of PhDs awarded to women in science and engineering (S&E) grew by 93 percent.
However, despite this growth in female doctorates, women’s representation in research has not followed suit.
In 2020 the UNESCO Institute for Statistics reported that less than 30 percent of full- and part-time research and development positions worldwide were held by women. Hadeel Elbardisy and Malak Abedalthagafi analyzed this phenomenon in a study published in Frontiers in Genetics by looking at the percentage of women researchers worldwide. They found that the 30 percent figure differed significantly by region, rising to close to 50 percent in Central Asia and as low as 23 percent in South and West Asia.
What’s more, North America and Western Europe ranked fifth out of the eight world regions represented—behind Central Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Arab States, and Central and Eastern Europe—with a percentage of women researchers only slightly higher than the global average—under 33 percent.
Percentage of Women in Research & Development (R&D) Positions By World Region
|Region||Average Percentage of Women in R&D|
|Latin America and the Caribbean||45.8|
|Central and Eastern Europe||39.0|
|North America and Western Europe||32.9|
|East Asia and the Pacific||25.0|
|South and West Asia||23.1|
Why Aren’t There More Women in Genomics Leadership?
“It’s called the ‘leaky pipeline,’ where a lot of women start in graduate school, and then when you go to advance in your career, very few [women] make it to full professors. But I heard someone say, ‘It’s not a leaky pipeline. It’s like people are stabbing at it.’” (Dr. Claudia Gonzaga-Jauregui)
Recent reports highlight the deep-rooted obstacles of gender and racial discrimination that female researchers encounter before reaching a senior position in academia. The well-known ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor highlights how this hinders their progression from STEM. Further structural issues like the glass ceiling and glass cliff actively limit or push women out of positions they are qualified for.
A major contributor to the leaky pipeline is the NIH clock. Eligibility for tenure-track professorships in the sciences requires the completion of a postdoc, a period of research and training that grooms scientists for tenure-track research positions. According to the NIH Office of Intramural Research:
The tenure track has been created to provide an opportunity for outstanding postdoctoral scientists trained inside and outside the NIH Intramural Research Program to prove themselves as independent scientists and to compete for permanent positions as tenured independent investigators.
In the traditional route to tenure, scientists complete their postdoctoral training in six years, become eligible for tenure-track positions, and procure a professorship at a university or research institution as a director or primary investigator of their own lab.
But though the intent of the NIH is “to provide all necessary resources and encouragement to tenure-track scientists, thus giving them a fair opportunity to demonstrate their creativity and productivity as independent scientists,” the NIH “clock” poses considerable difficulty for women scientists for a variety of reasons. As in other male-dominated fields, there are many barriers to women in genomics leadership, including sociocultural and systemic factors outlined below.
Executive Summary: Barriers to Women in Genomics
- The NIH Clock: The stringent requirements place women and people who choose to have children at a competitive disadvantage.
- Discrimination & Bias: Hiring practices discriminate against women for actual or assumed caregiving responsibilities and perceptions about their preparedness as researchers or capabilities for leadership.
- Exclusion: Before the National Science Foundation (NSF) stopped funding conferences that didn’t include the participation of women and members of minority groups in 1989, these events were historically dominated by male scientists.
- Invisibility: The invisibility of women of color in scientific leadership roles is pervasive and damaging.
- Identity: Women are less likely to stay on the research track due to the competing responsibilities of other important aspects of their lives.
- Family and Children: Women are more likely to be faced with choosing between family and career.
- Work environment: Toxic work environments and fear of retaliation, especially during the postdoctoral years, drive women from the research “pipeline.”
The NIH Clock places women and people who choose to have children at a competitive disadvantage.
“The research world can be very, very competitive because it doesn’t really matter if you found it after someone else because that first person found it first, and so their paper is going to get cited first, their grant’s going to get funded…Second place in science doesn’t sell.” (Dr. Christina Vallianatos)
Accepting a tenure track research position is like journeying on a rapid express connection between two major cities—no stops allowed. If you’re looking to explore and take in all that these bustling destinations have to offer, there’s little time available; hopping off this train means waiting for an undetermined amount of time before the next one arrives.
This presents considerable difficulties for female research-track scientists who want to have children. As Dr. Vallianatos explained, “If you’re a female professor, and you need some maternity leave, your clock doesn’t change. You’re on that same timeline, so it’s a really difficult thing to navigate, and that’s just from this childbearing perspective.”
People who want to have children are faced with a conundrum as the timing of the tenure track express often coincides with the beginning of family life. Sometimes, the NIH clock allows for part-time work so scientists can attend to caregiving. But the research track is historically not easy for people with families, especially for women who are more likely to take on responsibilities related to the care of children and family members.
From an industry perspective, the NIH clock is also difficult to navigate. When Dr. Gonzaga-Jauregui came up against the glass ceiling in her research position at a pharmaceutical company, she had to “restart her clock” to return to academia. Even if the scientist in question held a research role in their industry position as she did, scientists wishing to return to academia have to “start over.” It is the equivalent of not being allowed to re-embark on the express train despite having a valid ticket. Not only do they have to wait for a different train, but they must also go back to their original destination to start again. Dr. Gonzaga-Jauregui explained that after working for seven years as a senior manager in industry:
It was really hard to try to go back [to academia] because I didn’t have funding from NIH…They were like, ‘No, you cannot have an entry-level position as an assistant professor. You have to go back and do a postdoc,’ and I’m like, ‘I’ve been seven years as a group lead in industry, and I have all these publications. It’s not like I’ve been disconnected, I’ve been doing research.’ But unfortunately, the US academic system looks a lot into how much money you can bring into the university, rather than the production.
In a sense, individuals wanting to return to academia, even within the same area of research they pursued during their postdoc and industry careers, are penalized and demoted in terms of time, position, and salary.
Hiring practices discriminate against women for actual or assumed caregiving responsibilities and perceptions about their preparedness as researchers or capabilities for leadership.
“I don’t think we can ignore the fact that women have faced a lot of implicit and explicit bias in our careers throughout the years.” (Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro)
One of these biases is about women with young children, also known as the “baby penalty.”
Married women with young children are less likely to get tenure-track positions and are actively discriminated against for taking maternity leave. In fact, married women with small children are 35 percent less likely to obtain a tenure-track position than their male counterparts—many of whom are also married with children. The same women are also 33 percent less likely to be hired for the same tenure-track position than single women without small children.
The “baby penalty” can also manifest in lower rates of academic publishing and less prestigious employment offers.
Before the National Science Foundation (NSF) stopped funding conferences that didn’t include the participation of women and members of minority groups in 1989, these events were dominated by men.
“One of the amazing things that happened was that Mary Clutter…she had just become the assistant director for biological sciences at NSF, and she put out a staff memo to biology saying that that the biological sciences would not support workshops and conferences that did not have representation by women or individuals from underrepresented groups, either as speakers or organizers. And it changed everything.” Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro
Cell biologist Mary Clutter became the head of the directorate that awards grants for biological research at the NSF in 1989. When she realized that women were not being represented at the meetings being funded, she announced that the directorate would no longer fund meetings that did not include women–or not enough women–as main speakers.
Dr. Okamuro added, “At the time, only men were involved at those higher levels of organization and giving seminars and because NSF would not provide funding for the conferences, it was really the carrot that made organizations start to invite women. In fact, there were men who actually said, ‘Well, we do have women. We’re talking about their research.’ And Mary would say, ‘Why can’t they talk about their research?’”
Among the reasons cited–by both male and female conference organizers for not including women at the time–were that women lack “stage presence,” didn’t give good talks, or that conference organizers just wanted “the best” presenters.
Dr. Clutter also spoke out about the small percentage of minorities who get PhDs in science, of which she was quoted calling “a national disgrace” that’s going to “take a lot more to change” in The Washington Post.
Over the next 25 years, from 2005 to 2015, PhD recipients grew 31 percent in the Black/African American community and 71 percent in the Hispanic/Latino community. While those gains are not insignificant, here is the breakdown of the PhDs awarded in the biological and biomedical sciences in 2020 by race, ethnicity, and citizenship status—54 percent of which were awarded to women:
|Field of Study||Biological and Biomedical Science|
|Temporary Visa Holders||2,176|
|Total: U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents||6,008|
|Hispanic or Latino||528|
|American Indian or Alaskan Native||9|
|Black or African America||265|
|More Than One Race||237|
|Other (or Race Not Reported)||44|
|Ethnicity Not Reported||4|
Despite such gains, these numbers reveal that there is still much more work to be done to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in the biological and biomedical sciences, far below their population share.
The invisibility of women of color in scientific leadership roles is pervasive and damaging.
“…as a black woman….the invisibility that I’ve experienced throughout my career has been profound.” (Dr. Kathryn T. Hall)
Assumptions persist that women are not prepared for or will not pursue an academic track. However, this assumption is even more prevalent among women of color, who continue to deal with invisibility in the academy and prominent leadership roles.
Dr. Hall spoke with sincerity and candor of this invisibility—its prevalence and pervasiveness—connecting it to her work on placebos and what she has learned about the brain and perception:
One of the things that was really striking is our ability to predict what we think is about to happen. And in doing so, we’re not necessarily paying attention to what is actually happening. We’re more focused on our prediction.
And so you’re wondering, what does this have to do with the invisibility of being a black woman in science?
People don’t expect to see me as a scientist.
To illustrate this, Dr. Hall shared several examples of how, when going to give a talk as a featured speaker at an event—whether on an elevator ride, at the registration table, or the door of the conference room—that she has literally stood within arm’s length of people that could not see her in the space, let alone consider that she was the speaker they were waiting for/on their way to see:
This invisibility is a very profound indeed thing. I’m not excusing it because it’s how our brains work, I’m drawing attention to it because we need to transcend and do better. We need to do the work that our brains are not doing. We need to transcend the default.
Women are less likely to stay on the research track due to the competing responsibilities of other important aspects of their lives.
“Coming from an immigrant family had its challenges, too…My family didn’t have a lot of opportunities [but they were] trying to give a lot to me. A lot of first-gen folks probably feel the same, this duty to your family but also wanting to carve out the path for [yourself]…you kind of feel this burden…they came to this country to support you and do all these things for you. And you want to give back to them.” (Dr. Christina Vallianatos)
Women scientists commonly face a difficult balancing act, as their career decisions can be influenced by social identity and self-concept. “A Leak in the Academic Pipeline” found that for female researchers especially, significant uncertainty surrounding one’s professional trajectory has profound effects on how they define themselves within personal communities and potential sources of attachment or acceptance therein. This reality further complicates women’s ability to pursue research paths confidently while staying true to various aspects of life, such as motherhood and friendship.
Dr. Vallianatos shared:
When I told my family at 25 that I wanted to pursue my PhD…that I wanted to go back to school after working…my family’s like “Why do you want to go back to school? When are you going to get married…and have babies…and, you know, your life? The family life.”
Dr. Vallianatos pondered the roots of her family’s response and wondered what motivated their reaction to her professional goals. “I don’t want to generalize or say definitively, but perhaps that pressure is more on women,” she said. “What if I was a son instead of a daughter? Would I have that same comment? I don’t know. I kind of doubt it.”
Ultimately she shared that the questions this raised for her, this question of familial non-conformity, was something that she had to find ways of navigating: “That is a family barrier that I had to overcome. The expectations of me and my community, and I’m going to do something different…That’s very real.”
Women are more likely to have to choose between family and career.
“It was tough. I’m not going to say it wasn’t. I had children in every stage of my career: as an undergrad, a grad student, and a postdoc…we really had to be careful about keeping a healthy work-life balance because we could see in the children that if you didn’t, you could see that it was affecting them.” (Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro)
To say that the timing does not make work-life balance easy for PhD, post-doctoral, and tenure-track professors is an understatement. Given the life stage that coincides with building the publication record needed to secure academic employment, timing does not work in favor of female researchers planning to have children, who usually do so within five years of completing their doctoral degrees.
So, whether and when they have children is a huge factor that women and people who can get pregnant on the research track face. For some, it comes down to choosing between having children or having a career.
Not only are postdoctoral fellows discouraged from taking leave, but funding supporting postdocs also does not often allow for paid parental absence. It’s no wonder that 44 percent of women reported that issues related to children were key influences in their decision not to pursue a professorship with a research focus.
A strong partnership can truly be a driving factor in achieving professional success in academia. Dr. Gonzaga-Jauregui recently highlighted the importance of spousal support—an often overlooked element to unlocking a greater achievement, particularly for male scientists whose journey is made much smoother with their partner’s backing.
Toxic work environments—especially during the postdoctoral years—drive women from the research “pipeline.”
“If you know that you are in an environment where it’s not safe and your voice really won’t matter, it’s safer for a woman to leave than to fight it. So I think that also is a big problem with these pipelines.” (Dr. Claudia Gonzaga-Jauregui)
Postdoctoral women often endure hostile work environments, where respect, support, and equitable treatment are in short supply. These settings can be rife with put-downs, inappropriate comments, and unwelcome sexual attention. This combination puts female scholars at great risk of abandoning academia during the pre-tenure period.
Writing about the effects of toxic work environments for the Harvard Business Review, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey call for an end to the diagnosis of imposter syndrome, doubting one’s abilities or feeling like a fraud. They argue that the term “puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women.”
Tulshyan and Burey explain that using imposter syndrome to explain the effects of these structural barriers directs us to focus on “fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”
Institutional Reform: How to Increase Women’s Representation
Despite continued progress, genetics and genomics are still plagued by systemic barriers that inhibit women from advancing in leadership roles. Due to sociocultural limitations, women of color face even greater challenges in reaching their full potential.
But how can STEM leaders and scholars confront these issues head-on and craft solutions that ensure equal representation at all levels within this industry?
Executive Summary: How to Increase Women’s Representation
- Get a new metaphor.
- Redefine what it means to be a leader in genomics.
- Support upcoming scholars.
- Speak out and take action.
- Address systemic changes.
Get a New Metaphor
“That leaky pipeline, one thing I don’t like about it is it implies that it’s one end goal, that everyone’s going on a common path.” (Dr. Christina Vallianatos)
Instead of using a metaphor to describe what happens when women are excluded, forced out, or choose a different channel of participation, let’s create a metaphor of change. Of what we want the path to look like. What would that be? Here’s a metaphor that includes pathways inclusive of all who aspire to careers in the sciences: a Rainwater Catchment System.
A powerful yet often overlooked resource within the genomics and genetics research field is expansive thinking and its potential to benefit from many perspectives. To reach the highest level, we must ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute meaningfully—regardless of their background or identity—allowing us all to truly explore what this sector can offer in terms of progress and innovation.
By leveraging the available pool of talented individuals, we can foster a robust pipeline to fulfill genetics and genomics needs in research, government, and industry.
Redefine What It Means to be a Leader in Genomics
“I grew up in a coastal farming community in California. Our town was mostly minorities, and I understood how opportunities aren’t often available for people…and, in fact, at the time, I was in public schools. The numbers weren’t so great for people advancing into college, so I don’t think we’ve actually moved that needle as much as I think we should have.” (Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro)
Our esteemed interviewees emphasize the need for a more diverse and inclusive workforce, challenging traditional concepts of success in genetics and genomics to encompass broader career opportunities. They also suggest that by promoting fluidity between tracks and developing new pathways for research applications, we can truly revolutionize this field.
As Dr. Vallianatos explained:
I’m skilled as a researcher; I have a good publication record; I’ve been funded and very successful as a researcher; and I could certainly have continued on in that path.
But when I reflected on where are my interests, where are my skills, would I wake up every day really motivated to do that? There probably would be other people who would be more motivated than me. But would I be motivated to wake up every day and design educational experiences or work with the community? Yes.
And in fact, Dr. Vallianatos found her dream job in just that niche, as a genomic education and outreach program manager at Jackson Lab. But due to her choice to pursue a non-research role, she explained that she might be considered a lost statistic—“someone that fell out of that leaky pipeline.” She continued:
Where I found my interest was away from research, so I stepped off that track. But it doesn’t mean I stepped off that track and I’m going nowhere. I’m just on a different track. It’s a parallel track. It’s something that’s adjacent to research; it’s still using my science knowledge…I’m still in the genomics workforce. I’m still contributing and still helping advance the next generation of science, and I’m still promoting the research that’s happening now.
Dr. Hall’s career also followed a non-traditional trajectory. From the time she was a little girl growing up in Jamaica, she was intrigued by the employment opportunities that advancements in science could provide for many people:
When I was a kid growing up in Jamaica, it really became clear to me, for better or for worse, the system that we’ve set up really is designed for people to work: to make money, to take care of their children, to take care of their family to take care of their health.
And I was really struck by the different types of work that people do and felt that it would be great if people could really love their work no matter what they did, if they could find the joy in work. And so my vision as a little kid when I saw all the cans of condensed milk coming by and getting a dollop of condensed milk…getting canned, getting sealed, and getting the Nestle label on top…And in my little girl brain, I thought it would be great—and I also had this kind of scientist’s bent to make drugs for treatments for people with disease…people would have jobs, and they would really enjoy these jobs and they’d be stacking up pills instead of cans.
From an early age, Dr. Hall wanted to start her own pharmaceutical company, and she loved the decade she spent working in the industry before returning to academia: “When I was in graduate school, it was very taboo to want to go into the industry. It wasn’t cool, but I loved the idea of being able to make something that could be a day’s work you get paid for but you also help somebody.”
So I followed that path all along, and I really learned a lot about the pharmaceutical industry. We’re doing this amazing work, identifying these really cool targets in these large screens. We’re doing this really complex analysis, we’re demonstrating that these small molecules hit the target. In these animal models, they seem to be effective, and we would figure out how to make them the same way every time and then ship them up for a clinical trial, and low and behold, they couldn’t be a placebo, they couldn’t beat a sugar pill.
After a hiatus from the industry, Dr. Hall was beckoned back to academia after completing a master’s degree in documentary film and working on placebos. This move required her to restart her NIH clock.
I literally had to go back [and] become a postdoc again, which was very humbling, by the way. It was tough to go back, but sometimes you have to go back to move forward, and I just did it.
Dr. Okamuro also spoke about how training in genomics research translates into jobs in various settings outside of academia:
If you learn how to sequence [DNA] and analyze sequences, you can go to government and be in a forensic lab. You can go to a genotyping facility to help people understand what they might be more susceptible to because of their genetics. There are just so many different career opportunities. It’s not just going into academia and doing research. If individuals across the nation could have access to that type of training, they will be able to leverage it into a job that they will enjoy.
Support Upcoming Scholars
“[Make] sure that the work environment is safe, it’s open, [and that] if you have any issues, you can go to someone and say that, and there’s no fear of retaliation.” (Dr. Claudia Gonzaga-Jauregui)
The growth of women-led STEM leadership thrives on trust. Cultivating a supportive atmosphere empowers women to know who they can trust and who has their back.
Trust must be in place to create safe work environments. Following the harassment she experienced as a postdoc, Dr. Gonzaga-Juaregui saw the same challenges in the industry and that women were often alone in dealing with them: “Many people won’t talk if there’s an issue because there’s retaliation from the leadership.”
Since then, in her experience, Dr. Gonzaga-Juaregui found that HR was “not really there to remediate the relationships but to protect the leadership.” This has been a priority for her in her position as a principal investigator at the LIIGH, the International Laboratory of Human Genome Research, housed within the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).
At the LIIGH, we are a lot of young PIs, and unfortunately, one of my colleagues was a victim of sexual harassment by another investigator. So we’ve been very clear and strong about making the LIIGH a very safe environment for everyone, where there’s an open-door policy if there’s any concern about anyone’s behavior because people have been a victim of that.
Speak Out and Take Action
“I have a call to action that we need to wake up and see who’s in front of us and examine our biases for why we can’t see people. Examine the biases that drove our assumption and ask the question, what am I missing in this moment?” (Dr. Kathryn T. Hall)
Dr. Okamuro shared that after The Washington Post highlighted Dr. Clutter’s stance on the inclusion of women in NIH-funded events, the NIH soon followed, with the same policy.
Also, Dr. Hall’s role as deputy commissioner at the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) entails working closely with human resources. She shared the complexity involved in working with employees, especially in public health agencies, “where people are historically underpaid and overworked.”
To address this, Dr. Hall and her team are working to provide professional development opportunities for employees, team-building activities, and coaching. She also started a BPHC videotaping competition where departments film the work they do in their division and share them throughout the organization.
Address Systemic Changes
Dr. Hall also works with the Office of Racial Equity and Diversity at BPHC, focusing on how to address the systemic issues wrought by structural racism both within and outside of the Commission.
Underscoring the importance of addressing bias and inequality in the scientific community, Dr. Okamuro pointed out that “even small biases, collectively, can become a major hurdle for a person in their career development.” And if we examine these small biases as Dr. Hall urges, what do we find?
Small biases can quickly become catastrophic when they are part of the bigger picture. A troubling example is how gender-based discrimination creates an environment in which women struggle against structural disadvantages such as the glass ceiling, disastrously apparent with the glass cliff phenomenon, and ultimately being pushed out of research pipelines due to hostile work environments.
In explaining the two sides of what is essentially the same coin, Dr. Hall shared, “The good thing is when you’re invisible, the bad thing is when you’re a target. And it’s the same mechanism, right? It’s the same mechanism that led to the harm that is done in the name of racism.”
It has not been easy for women in genomics, and there is still much work to be done. “One of the most difficult things to look at and think about every day,” Dr. Hall said,” is how on earth are we going to impact equity and inequity? How are we going to make an impact in structural racism?”
Barrier-Busting Advice for Aspiring Female Leaders
Executive Summary: Advice for Aspiring Leaders
- Don’t let others limit your options.
- Cultivate a support system.
- Follow your passions.
- Keep going.
Don’t Let Others Limit Your Options
“It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to switch tracks. As long as it’s a step for you and what you want as opposed to doing it for someone else. It’s a step in the right direction.” (Dr. Christina Vallianatos)
Our interviewees advise aspiring women leaders in genetics and genomics to take time to get to know themselves. In other words, own who you are.
Their advice was consistent and clear: assess your interests. Discover and hone your skills. Explore all avenues. In this spirit, Dr. Vallianatos encourages students to keep an open mind about their career options: “Don’t write anything off,” she tells them. “Don’t close that door because this is just a little sliver that you’re seeing right now. What the real-world applications are, or what it might look like in a job or what it might look like in another field can be very different, and that might spark your interest.”
She also urges students to look outside of academia for the right fit for their skills and interests, explaining that first, there aren’t enough jobs, and second, that while not everyone is meant for that path, opportunities abound to use your genetics and genomics training:
We need all these other things, right?
How are you going to get the next generation of scientists into your lab? You have to do something to interact with those students and support them in their science journey.
How are you going to get your NIH grants [if] congress and the federal government don’t understand the importance of research? You need people [at] the government level to advocate.
How are you going to get your therapeutics from your basic lab research into the clinic? You need people on the medical side of things, on the drug development side of things.
Dr. Hall also advocates not discounting the plethora of interests that might call your attention, that in fact, they might be leading you to exactly where you are meant to be:
It took me a while to own all the different parts of me, and I remember one of my mentors saying that I needed to pick one thing because ‘People are going to think you’re all over the place.’
And it’s interesting because the thing I picked was whether or not genes can influence placebo response. I ended up working on one of the genes that I got really interested in, this gene that had pleiotropic effects in cardiovascular disease, cancer, placebo, substance use, and depression. I got very focused and then exploded into a whole other world.
Cultivate a Support System
“One of the things that has always helped me are my mentors. I had amazing mentors, both men and women, and I think that was very important.” (Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro)
Finding and cultivating a support system was a piece of advice that all of our interviewees spoke about as a key contributor to their success. Women in STEM can find mentors in formal or informal relationships. Mentors can be short-term and result in stepping-stones to new opportunities or long-term collaborations throughout a career.
When asked about the career accomplishment she is most proud of, Dr. Okamuro spoke of her work with the plant genome research postdoctoral fellowship program as one of the most rewarding aspects of her tenure at the NSF: “I’ve had an opportunity to interact with amazing, amazing individuals who are at the post-doctoral level,” she said. “I continue to be able to interact with them after they’ve gotten positions, many of whom have positions now in the industry, academia, and not-for-profit institutions.”
Support from family, friends, partners, and spouses is also vital. Dr. Okamuro and Dr. Gonzaga-Juaregui both spoke with immense gratitude for their spouses’ integral role in their professional success.
Follow Your Passions
“The ultimate goal for any scientist is to be able to help the public understand what science can do for them, to give them a basic knowledge of the science, so that they can make informed decisions about their life, their health.” (Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro)
Disciplinary identity was found to be a potential factor to prevent the rate at which postdoctoral women leak from the academic pipeline. Let’s broaden this view to the use of passion to direct your course in genetics and genomics leadership.
Use your passion to stay in the game, to do the important work you are meant to do, whatever form that may take. “Really think about your interests, and your skills, your aptitude, where you can grow, what motivates you rather than thinking about this job or that job,” Dr. Christina Vallianatos urged.
With commitment and courage, Dr. Hall took ownership of her interests and talents—a decision that set in motion the chain of events that saw their ultimate realization through an impactful life’s work.
I think that’s really important, to learn about all the intersections that exist. Life is really a network and a series of interaction effects that are constant and changing over time. The more that we can immerse ourselves in that network and understand what it all means, I think we’re going to be able to start to have an impact on some of the diseases and some of the conditions that plague us as human beings.
By creating a space that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion, the four female scholars featured here have propelled the field of genetics and genomics forward. With their pioneering insights into amplifying representation in academia, groundbreaking discoveries are being achieved at an unprecedented level—proving that when women participate in collaborative research endeavors, everyone wins.
In 2020, over half a century after Rosalind Franklin was excluded from the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her significant contributions to the discovery of double helix DNA, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier’s revolutionary discovery of the genome editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—cementing women’s invaluable place within scientific research in the 21st century.
When asked if she thought their achievement could have a lasting effect in paving the way for more women to pursue STEM careers, Doudna said:
“It certainly makes me happy that it could be the case that because two women were involved in the early days of CRISPR, we could have established a culture that is welcoming to other women in the field.”
The impact of women in STEM is revolutionizing the field of genomics, transforming humanity’s knowledge base, and creating a brighter future. And to create a healthier world where equal opportunities flourish, we need more contributions from a wider range of gender identities.
Only through the insight and effort of numerous diverse voices will we be able to halt injustice in its tracks and ensure our planet remains safe for generations to come.