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    Women in Science: Q&A with Dr. Elizabeth Enninga

Dr. Elizabeth Enninga
Elizabeth Enninga, Ph.D.

March is Women's History Month, an opportunity to highlight the contributions of women in science and the challenges they face.

A career in science and research can be challenging yet rewarding for women. It's a path they don't need to navigate by themselves, says Elizabeth Enninga, Ph.D. The key to overcoming those challenges is to build a strong network of people who can help answer questions not just about science and research, but also about career progression, she says.

In this Q&A, Dr. Enninga, a Mayo Clinic associate consultant and mentor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, with a joint appointment in the Department of Immunology, shares her thoughts on the biggest challenges women in science face and how they can overcome those challenges.

Can you share experiences or observations about the challenges women in science face in advancing their careers in biomedical research?

From my viewpoint as an assistant professor and mentor, the three biggest challenges for women are constantly having to prove oneself, dealing with extra demands that are non-promotable, and navigating opportunity and wage penalties during childbearing years. 

First, research has shown that men are more likely than women to be perceived as experts in their fields. According to data from Mayo Clinic, women's titles get used less in professional situations. Other research shows they receive less credit for their work than men. Feeling like you need to work harder to produce more, yet are still being seen as less successful, is exhausting and can lead to burnout and imposter syndrome very quickly. This contributes to many female scientists choosing to leave academia altogether.

Elizabeth Enninga, Ph.D. in the lab, women in science
Dr. Elizabeth Enninga working in a lab

Additionally, women may spend a lot of extra time on tasks that ultimately don't help with promotion — for example, serving on committees and mentoring research trainees who aren't their own. It has been well documented that women are more likely than men to be asked to be on committees, and women are more likely to say yes. Women also spend more time writing letters of recommendation and using soft skills to help trainees navigate difficult situations. 

Lastly, many female researchers deal with opportunity penalties that come with having children and can be costly to their careers. This is someone being passed over for an opportunity because it is perceived they won't want it because they are a mother or caregiver. Women are also less likely to uproot their families to take better opportunities elsewhere, which is commonly seen when looking at applicant pools for associate professor or higher positions. This can significantly impact career trajectories and earnings over the person's lifetime. 

What barriers in the scientific community disproportionately affect women, and how can they hinder career progression for women in science?

Elder care and child care still disproportionally fall to women, and flexible policies to account for these challenges are often ignored. Better paternity leave policies and more men opting to take time away from their careers to care for loved ones would greatly reduce this barrier for women. 

Other policies such as pausing the tenure or eligibility clock for promotions or grant submissions to account for biology/family commitments, and standardizing the often poorly defined promotion process, would also help, but must be rolled out at a larger scale. I've seen many incredible women navigate these obstacles and still make it to the top. However, I often reflect about how much more they could have done were they not having to dodge barriers at every step of their careers.       

What strategies effectively promote women's career success in biomedical research, and how can gender equality in the field be further improved?

The National Institutes of Health recognizes that men still disproportionately receive more funding than women at all levels of awards. While a lot of that has to do with unconscious bias of reviewers who view women less likely to succeed than their male counterparts, some has to do with inflexible policies that more commonly impact women during their training and early career time frame, and often overlap with their childbearing years. Policies that include assistance with child care costs, family leave, supplements to reenter the workforce after leave, and pausing the Early-Stage Investigator clock all help to take a bit of the pressure off.       

What words of advice do you have for women who are pursuing scientific careers? 

Build a strong network of men and women you can go to with questions and concerns related to not only science, but also career progression. These people can serve as advocates on your behalf and recommend you for leadership or other opportunities that can advance your career. 

I've learned that advocates (also called sponsors) are just as important as more formal mentors at every stage of your scientific career. Therefore, let people know your goals and highlight your accomplishments (new publications, grants, etc.) so that they can help you get there. This is one of the most challenging but rewarding careers, and you won't succeed trying to do everything on your own. 

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