Women still struggling for equal opportunity in the biosciences
The Commercial Appeal
Oct 3, 2010
By Toby Sells
Q: What have many women discovered above the glass ceiling of the bioscience industry? A: A sticky floor. A pair of studies finds that women have, indeed, broken through that symbolic ceiling that once loomed thickly over health care, medical academics and engineering. They both say, too, that those women don't get paid as much and have a harder time getting promoted than their male counterparts. This "sticky floor" phenomenon, the studies say, is created by stereotypes and institutional biases. The studies, a 2008 report from the non-profit Catalyst group and the other from the federal National Academies in 2006, are the most recent academic looks at women in these fields. But a recent "Women in Bioscience" luncheon meeting from the Memphis Bioworks Business Association put a fresh and local face on the topic. Shelia Champlin, director of communications and marketing for the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, said more women than men are now enrolled in "probably every one of our six colleges" because they see that medical professions are "wide open for women." "These students are seeing researchers at all levels who are women -- from people just starting out to people who have full careers and continue to be fully (National Institutes of Health-funded) researchers," Champlin said. The university enrolled 1,750 women and 1,099 men during last year's fall semester, which certainly gels with both of the reports. But Laura Whitsitt, vice president of research and development in Smith & Nephew's orthopedic reconstruction division, said the flux of women getting bioscience degrees has not yet translated to more women in the medical device industry. Men mostly comprise the business and its customer base of orthopedic surgeons, she said. "(The surgeons) can be very demanding and I think it's a challenge for everyone but probably a bit more so for women," Whitsitt said. "You really have to have a lot of knowledge and self-confidence in what you're doing in order to have effective working relationships with our surgeon customers." But that doesn't worry Heather Doty, a University of Memphis biomedical engineering graduate student. "I hope that going into (the industry) with confidence and skills -- equal skills from men and women -- that those barriers will come down," Doty said. She does worry, though, about what happens when it comes time to start a family. Who will stay home? Who will go back to work? Those boundaries, she said, aren't clearly defined. Dr. Maria Gomes-Solecki, a professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and owner of Biopeptides Corp., said Doty's concerns about family are likely the crux of the women-in-bioscience conundrum. "I don't think just because you have more women in colleges that you're going to have more in the workforce later on," Gomes-Solecki said. "Every woman has to make the decision at some point: family versus career." -- Toby Sells: 529-2742 Who gets paid in bioscience? CEOs: men, $161,971; women, $109,006 Physicians & surgeons: men, $168,154; women, $99,884 Medical scientists: men, $68,475; women, $49,291 Source: Catalyst from 2000 U.S. Census. "This is something that's systematic. It's something that should have been remedied a long time ago." Jenny Hoobler, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who studies the glass-ceiling effect in America
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