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Women’s Role in Science: Q and A with Jo Handelsman

Over the past 15 years, Jo Handelsman, a UW-Madison professor of plant pathology, has been involved in various initiatives to improve the campus climate for women. She chaired the university”s Committee on Women for a few years during the late 1990s, and helped secure a $3.75 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2001, which was used to establish, with co-director Molly Carnes, the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, a living laboratory that has provided a platform to address and study these issues.

Handelsman was recently elected president of the newly-founded Rosalind Franklin Society, an organization named in honor of the woman who played a critical role in determining the structure of DNA. The goal of the society is to advance the role of women in science nationally and internationally.

Q: Why was the Rosalind Franklin Society (RFS) founded?

A: Mary Ann Leibert, the scientific publishing giant, founded the RFS because she had seen so much sexism and felt that we had made so little progress on the issue of women in science that she wanted to take dramatic action. Forming this society with a powerful name like Rosalind Franklin”s associated with it, and then gathering prominent scientists to sit on the board, was her way of making a statement and getting the message out.

Q: Has the message been getting out?

A: The image of Rosalind Franklin has certainly changed in the last 20 years. She is now a significant piece of the history of molecular biology and her contributions are appreciated. Likewise, the RFS is being recognized very broadly by scientists, politicians and educators as an initiative that has potential to bring the issue of women in science to light, and hopefully force significant change.

Q: Why is it important to create a better climate for women in academia?

A: This issue is important because we can”t afford not to use the best brainpower and all of the resources at our disposal to solve the massive global problems we face. This means that if we squeeze women out of the system, then we”re losing some of the best talent.

There is also a lot of research that shows that heterogeneous groups come up with better solutions to problems than homogeneous groups, so we can assume that science will benefit from diversifying the people who do science.

Q: Since you arrived on campus, what has happened-generally-to improve the climate for women?

A: Many of the changes we”ve seen in recent years are rooted in Donna Shalala”s chancellorship. She instituted a Committee on Women here in the early 1990s. Other universities in that era either didn”t have them, or they were powerless, hidden committees that people didn”t even tell their colleagues they were on. Shalala was followed by David Ward, John Wiley, and Pat Farrell, who all champion the advancement of women in science.

Q: What improvements have come to pass? How?

A: The Committee on Women worked hard in the 1990s to identify tangible problems and address them. Then, in 2001, when the National Science Foundation announced its ADVANCE program [which provided grants to study equity for women at universities], we were in a very good position to address some of the tougher, less tangible issues like climate because the campus had already instituted progressive policies such as extending the tenure clock for family responsibilities, conducting two gender pay equity exercises and developing sexual harassment training.

The grant gave us a chance to try some experimental initiatives and study their effect on recruitment, retention, and advancement of women. That”s where we”ve spent an awful lot of our efforts.

Q: Has the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute detected any measurable changes resulting from its intervention programs?

A: We collected survey data in 2003 and 2006. When comparing the results, one trend is that participation in our programs seems to correlate with changes in attitudes among faculty. The training programs for department chairs and search committee chairs-both of which focus on fairness issues, unconscious bias, and climate-made majority [male and/or white] faculty more aware that not everyone experiences the same climate.

Q: What is the most impressive progress you”ve seen?

A: The single biggest change over the last five years is that now the conversation about gender can happen. When the topic is brought up, it”s no longer automatically perceived as a loaded, accusatory topic.

One of our big hoped-for outcomes in search committee training, for example, was that one day, search committees could have people on them say ”Are we applying a gender or racial bias here? Are we holding all of our candidates to the same standard?” without people getting defensive. What we teach in those sessions is that we all-both women and men-carry unconscious biases, but people can change their behavior if they are aware and take action to avoid the impact of those biases on their decision making. In recent years, when I see people asking these kinds of questions or when I ask them, I don”t see any angry or defensive responses. That”s an incredible improvement.