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Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: “We must affect change in overall attitudes about women with power”

As part of a recently launched series on women working in Stanford's neurosurgery department, I recently spoke with associate professor Marion Buckwalter, MD, PhD, a stroke clinician and basic scientist. Below is a portion of our conversation.

When did you get hooked on science?

I always loved science and math, they were always my favorite subjects in school. I always loved thinking about how things work. I’m the kind of person that looks around at the world and thinks, 'I wonder how that works,' and I want to figure it out...

What unique advantages do you think women bring to the field?

I bring my own perspective, and I guess some of my perspective may come from being a woman, but a lot of it comes from my training and what I think about every day and the kinds of questions I’m interested in. I’d much rather think of myself as a scientist then as a woman scientist. Women might ask different questions; there’s some data that women may do research differently than men, in a more cooperative fashion, but that also makes me uncomfortable because it’s another way of saying women are not equal to men.

In general, I think that at Stanford there’s a lot of cooperation because the university actively encourages it. I also think mentors that are supportive of women are very, very important for women to advance; that doesn’t necessarily mean female mentors, but people who recognize the importance of advancing equality in the workplace.

What do you think are the main reasons more women aren’t pursuing science?

For many years, the pipeline has been such that an equal number of women and men, or even more women than men, have enrolled and gotten PhDs. Where they drop out is between the PhD and the post-doc, and between the post-doc and the faculty positions. I think it’s because of sexism. Inherent sexism in the system, mostly. Usually not conscious sexism where someone says, 'You’re a woman and you don’t belong here,' but people saying, 'Well, have you thought about work-life balance?' and inferring that you can’t have it if you’re a woman in science.

I don't have kids. I do have friends who are women who are successful who have children, and uniformly they all have partners who help take care of the children and do equal or more than equal work in the home. The default model was always that the woman makes the [career] sacrifices, and in medicine you see that all the time. There's nothing wrong with that, just like there's nothing wrong with a man staying home with the kids -- it's just that it's unequal, and that's what bothers me.

Do you have hope that things are changing for the better?

In the 1960s people were protesting the exact same issues we are today; people wanted equal pay for equal work, they wanted women not to be sexually assaulted, and women wanted to be respected for their voice. As a society, we still need to work on these issues for all women. The scientific community is just a reflection of the larger culture and in many ways, I think it’s more advanced.

So it’s not that science is a particularly bad place for women, it’s just when you look at high powered jobs overall, there are fewer women in them. If you look at the number of women in neuroscience or science at Stanford who are faculty, especially more senior faculty, it’s quite low. But it’s still probably higher than women who are CEOs of companies or lawyers who are partners in law firms, or women in politics, or [any] high work-commitment, high-profile, high-status job, and you look around and there aren’t that many women. To get to a 50-50 distribution of men and women scientists we must affect change in overall attitudes about women with power and influence.

modified version of this piece originally appeared on the Stanford Department of Neurosurgery's website.

Previously: Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: "There's always a way to make it work for you"Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: "If there’s something that you want to do, you do it", Female biomedical faculty progress toward parity and Stanford surgery chair Mary Hawn and the changing face of the OR

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