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Calling all women in STEM: Let’s more consciously create and use our networks!

Calling all women in STEM: Let’s more consciously create and use our networks!

As an East Asian (Korean) woman in academic medicine, I am not statistically underrepresented, but there continues to be a “boy’s club”, with white men in most positions of power as well as full professorships; some of these statistics are in an article by Jennifer R. Grandis, MD. The prestige of men compared to women is echoed in articles like Claudia Lopez Lloreda’s in Science, which reports women researchers are cited less than men, with concrete steps to address this, including being transparent about the number of men vs. women authors cited in any given study. (Along these lines, in this particular Op-Ed, I have made a conscious effort to include links to articles written by women.)

But the problem of citing women less often reflects a deeper issue of different networks for women vs. men (first author Kristina Lerman). The pervasive and insidious “other”-ing of women must be openly confronted before the relationship networks of women vs men can become more equitable.

Collaborations in scientific research are influenced by homophily, the tendency to seek out those who are similar to oneself; gender homophily is the tendency to collaborate with the same gender. Senior author Claire Morandin’s paper gives supporting data that gender homophily in scientific research happens more than by chance, even in fields where women are not the minority. Her research further supports that mixed-gender collaborations are more likely to publish in higher-impact journals, a good reason to step past gender homophily.

Networks influence not only scientific publications but also speaking opportunities. First author Christine Nittrouer’s paper on colloquium speakers at top universities exposed a gender difference. Invited speakers were more likely to be male. Importantly, women are not declining speaking invitations more than men; women are being asked less frequently than men. Female-led colloquiums were more likely to include women speakers (another potential example of gender homophily; in this case, benefiting women).

Visibility of women as speakers or authors helps promote women individually and collectively. The converse, invisibility (or absence) of women, is detrimental. A BMJ Open paper by first author Victoria Salem suggests that women leave academic medicine for multiple reasons that can be tied to ineffective relational networks, including a lack of authentic role models, poor mentoring, discrimination, harassment, and sexism. In a corollary article by first author Claire Vassie, informal social networks provide support and advocacy and are a reason women tend to stay in academia.

To be sure, through friendships, we learn early on that you cannot force someone into any kind of relationship. Even for adults, friendship is complicated, and Lydia Denworth has written a book on this important topic. As Gail Cornwall writes, friendships are important relationships that help set the stage for our other social interactions. While we cannot force individuals to create specific connections, knowledge of network differences for women compared to men allows us to take steps to equalize networking in academia.

 The different network maps of women vs. men in scientific citations resonate with me because I know that my own academic network has grown slowly. For me, the reasons are myriad but do include my shy and introverted personality, childcare responsibilities that prevented me from traveling and spending extra time at academic meetings, and possibly a lack of strong friendships as a child that influences the way I build relationships to this day. I also know from personal experience that my academic network has grown, over time, through academic writing, speaking opportunities, and strong mentorship.

My first academic paper was with a male mentor, my first teacher in the field of dermatopathology. At the time, my institution had three dermatopathologists, and they were all male. For what it is worth, a cursory glance over my curriculum vitae (CV) reveals that my initial seven academic papers are all with a male senior author. My own first senior author paper was in collaboration with a female trainee. The last 10 papers on which I have been senior author, there is a 50-50 split of female vs male first authors. Typing these statistics that are embedded in my CV, I am struck that these were not conscious choices. In the future, I will be more aware that the relationships and networks that I build for myself do directly influence not only my own academic record but also the careers of others.

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