From the President : Rarefied Air

October 27, 2020

Dear Sigma Xi members,
sonya picture
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Unfortunately, when I speak with senior female colleagues in academia and in industry, this seems to be our plight. We have successfully worked our way up the academic/corporate ladder, thereby “getting” what we and our institutions want. However, we often find that the climate at the top of the ladder becomes more hostile toward us, even though we have achieved the success metrics of our organizations. 

As we in the sciences strive to encourage more women and underrepresented minorities to follow our paths, we often find ourselves responding to difficult questions from our students and postdocs, such as, “Why would you encourage us to enter this profession? Look at what’s happening to you?” Such questions are troubling, but not surprising. Recent research on gender differences in the sciences suggests that covert discrimination, implicit biases, career preferences, and lifestyle choices are some of the current problems hindering women’s participation in STEM fields. Thus, women in leadership are often caught “between a rock and a hard place,” being subjected to extreme perceptions as a consequence of their success. Other research from Catalyst, a leading research and advisory organization, asserts the following: “When women act in gender-consistent ways—that is, in a cooperative, relationship-focused manner—they are perceived as ‘too soft’ leaders. On the other hand, when women act in gender-inconsistent ways—that is, when they act authoritatively, show ambition, and focus on the task—they are viewed as ‘too tough.’” 

At Sigma Xi, I am fortunate to enjoy a welcoming climate and supportive colleagues. But I do not enjoy this in other spaces I occupy, nor do many of my female colleagues of color. As a community of scholars, we must lead by example to combat implicit bias and hostile work climates. It does not serve the nation’s nor our institution’s best interests to have people who could otherwise be role models not make our profession look appealing to those who are considering entering. 

Laura McCullough of the University of Wisconsin-Stout has stated, “As more women take on STEM leadership roles, understanding what their experiences are can help promote other women’s aspirations to, and success in, leadership. I write this letter shortly after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Many women of my generation and beyond owe our access to our scientific careers and leadership to her advocacy for women’s rights. At Sigma Xi, we will take the baton Justice Ginsberg has passed to us to champion equity and inclusion in scientific research. May she rest in power.

Sonya Smith 
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society 

More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety