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Workshop aims to put women on 'path of professorship'

Blanche Staton
Blanche Staton

Sarah Bagby, an MIT biology graduate student, was accustomed in high school to being one of the few girls in her computer science, physics and calculus classes. But she was forcibly reminded of skewed gender ratios again during a physics colloquium at MIT just two years ago.

"I counted three other women in the audience, all apparently fairly junior," Bagby recalled. "We're empiricists. We pay attention to the available data. And when it looks like the experiment rarely works, and the experiment is life as a woman in science, it takes a lot of stubbornness and confidence to use your life as a replicate. Everyone is waiting for enough really stubborn women to accumulate as successful data points."

Which is why Bagby and chemical engineering graduate students Anita Shukla and Ling Chao are all putting in long hours to help Blanche Staton, senior associate dean for graduate education, organize MIT's third "Path of Professorship" workshop this Friday and Saturday. The workshop aims to give a boost to graduate and postdoctoral women at MIT who are considering a tenure-track position in the fields of science, engineering, and technology.

With panel discussions on issues like negotiation, tenure, managing teaching and service obligations -- plus ample opportunity for networking and no-holds-barred discussions of work-life balance issues -- the workshop will provide insight into the skills, sacrifices and satisfaction of an academic career for women.

"Networking is the way to build up relationship," Chao explained. "When people have relationships, they can share information, experience, and resources, which would all enhance their academic careers."

Today, about 31 percent of MIT's graduate students are women, Staton said. Many don't opt for an academic career; "At some point along the way we lose them," she said.

More than a dozen female MIT faculty members, including Deborah Fitzgerald, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, are scheduled to make presentations at the workshop, which will also feature faculty from Tufts, Northeastern, Wellesley, UCLA and the University of Maryland.

Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus -- who, according to Staton, remembers "the time when all of her students were men" -- will give the keynote address on Friday.

The "Path of Professorship" workshop grew out of a similar "Forward to Professorship" program, developed in Washington and brought to MIT in 2005. It proved so successful that Staton developed a more compact version specifically directed to the issues of MIT women. "It became clear to me that there was a need here," she said.

This weekend's workshop, already filled at 65 participants, is designed to be both professional and personal, with intimate discussion of hard issues.

Bagby and Chao attended last year's workshop and, as Chao put it, "I became more encouraged and motivated when I saw many respectful role models, and was surrounded by many motivated participants who have similar goals, concerns and struggles."

Some of the issues raised are concerns for working women everywhere, but other issues are specific to science. Shukla and Bagby noted that they work with radioactive materials and powerful reagents that could affect a pregnancy. "I can make that decision to take the risk for myself," but it's a different matter if a child is expected, Bagby said.

"There is also a concern about how science advances so rapidly that if you step away two years, it could make a difference in your field," Staton said.

Faculty participants can convey strategies for different stage of academic life -- "really nuts-and-bolts stuff that you'd usually only learn from having done it the wrong way," Bagby said. Last year, the experience of "putting grad students and post-docs into a room full of academic rock stars who were all women was incredibly powerful."

The workshop has even generated interest from members of the opposite sex, including one who requested details on a companion session for men.

"We don't have it, but talk to Dean Staton," Bagby told him.

"We all agree it would be fantastic if we didn't need this workshop. But we haven't come to that point yet," Bagby said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 2008 (download PDF).

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