A Personal Perspective: Why Increasing the Advancement of Women in Neuroscience Matters

Mara Dierssen is a senior scientist at the Centre for Biomedical Research on Rare Diseases and the president of the Spanish Society for Neuroscience. She shares her insight about the challenges women face in neuroscience from her experience working and advancing in the field, and she offers advice to other women pursuing a career in neuroscience.

Why do you think increasing advancement for women in neuroscience is important for rising neuroscientists?

There is still hard evidence of continuing bias against women in the sciences. I believe we are still vastly underrepresented — especially in leadership positions — in academia. Whether women are just starting their science careers or have already achieved success, they have possibly faced serious obstacles. As a result, they may have experienced a lack of self-confidence or a difficult work-life balance, leading to sometimes difficult decisions. Gender bias has also led to an attrition of many talented female scientists. 

It is therefore important for the next generation of female scientists to learn and initiate successful strategies to overcome these challenges. Women tuning into our webinar, In First Person: Tips to Survive and Excel as a Woman in Neuroscience, will have the opportunity to receive tips from leading female neuroscientists who have navigated paths to success. 

What takeaways will people get from this webinar? 

Our goal is that viewers will have new ways of addressing challenges associated with implicit gender bias, recruitment in academia, workplace climate, and promotion and tenure issues. I think these topics and tangible solutions are better discussed in a “first person” point of view.

Presenters answer questions such as: 

  • How can you find the best mentors? 
  • What should you consider when choosing your lab or your project? 
  • How do you make career choices? What should you keep in mind? 
  • When to keep pressing and when to let go? 

While the webinar may be geared toward young scientists, more senior scientists will also benefit from hearing how these concerns and solutions have changed a lot from when they first started their careers. 

What “survival skill” have you relied on the most to succeed in your career?

Passion.

I started my scientific career in Spain when neuroscience was a male-dominated field. I faced all of the classic stereotypes about females being unable to succeed in the scientific world and unsuitable for leadership positions. I was not even conscious of the “unwritten rules” of science, such as how to publish your results, how to succeed in a job interview, or how to get your science funded.

Always keeping my dreams and goals in mind helped me to move on and continue my career. I had four children, so I needed to be passionate and convinced about my science career to overcome the difficulties. Later on, I also learned that I didn’t have to wait for others to approve what I did. It is better to ask forgiveness than permission. 

Finally, my career has been a key to the rest of the world. I’ve been able to share experiences with many different people, and that has been very helpful and a wonderful part of my career.

Do you have any specific advice for the next generation of female scientists?

We all try the best we can to be successful, happy, and balanced. While we may achieve that using different formulas, if you find passion, you’ll have an easier time pursuing it. To the young neuroscientists, I would say that determination and perseverance is very important, but so is ambition. Taking the “safer” route is not always the best idea. Finally, be flexible and willing to make adjustments because what you want will change along the way.

Is there a scientist that has inspired you?  Who was it and why?

When I started my career, it was difficult to find role models because there were not many female scientists and there was no Internet. My only scientific frames of reference were the professors in my department and my father. He was a neurosurgeon, yet had a solid basic and broad science background in biochemistry, neuropsychiatry, and neuroanatomy and a profound scientific drive. He fuelled my curiosity and my scientific career.

Want to hear more personal stories? Register for and watch the webinar, “In First Person: Tips to Survive and Excel in Neuroscience.” Read more about Mara Dierssen in a Dana Foundation blog post, Empowering Female Neuroscientists.

SfN’s Professional Development Committee's Women in Neuroscience Subcommittee (WINS) is hosting the webinar as part of its ongoing mission to promote how gender diversity contributes to excellence in research and discuss important topics such as implicit gender bias, recruitment in academia, workplace climate, and promotion and tenure. For more information about SfN programming on women in neuroscience, visit http://www.sfn.org/careers-and-training/women-in-neuroscience. 

What are you looking forward to hearing in the webinar? What strategies do you follow to excel in your career? Share with your colleagues in the comments.

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