The path was rarely straight. The steps were neither easy nor obvious. Nonetheless Persis Drell, PhD, navigated the mostly male landscape of academic sciences to become Stanford's thirteenth provost. As the chief academic and chief budgetary officer, she holds a key position in setting university priorities and allocating funds to support them.
At the Stanford Medical Alumni Association's Women in Medicine and Science event, Drell, along with Stanford Medicine leaders, talked about her path to leadership -- a winding one that began as an undergraduate at Wellesley College.
"The smartest woman in every class was a woman," Drell said. "You never asked, 'Do I belong?' Of course I belonged."
Graduate school, however, wasn't as welcoming. Studying physics at the University of California, Berkeley, Drell was the only woman in her class when she arrived as a student. Despite the challenges, Drell said she learned to be resilient. She built her own community and did her part to change the culture, celebrating small successes along the way, like creating the first gender neutral bathroom in the basement filled with research labs.
As Drell launched her academic career, well-meaning colleagues told her to wait until she had secured tenure before starting a family. Drell ignored the advice and interviewed at Cornell University with a six-week-old under her arm.
"Throughout your career," Drell told the room full of School of Medicine graduates and students. "You will have to make choices -- some of them will be difficult. For me, it was extremely important to chart a career path that allowed for family. That came with particular challenges and trade-offs but I owned those choices. They were my choices."
Drell loved teaching -- still does -- but along the way, she realized she liked serving in leadership positions too. "I discovered that I like to solve problems -- all kinds: structural, organizational and mission-related."
After 14 years at Cornell, Drell moved to Stanford into a laboratory leadership role, eventually becoming the director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. In 2014, she became dean of Stanford's School of Engineering and provost in 2017.
Drell's advice to the women in the room? Make the tough choices, don't get discouraged, and build a strong network.
Mary Leonard, MD; Leslee Subak, MD; and Suzanne Pfeffer, PhD, who chair the pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, and biochemistry departments respectively, seconded Drell's advice.
Each told of their owns paths, which like Drell's, were not linear. They talked about the choices they made and the barriers they overcame -- which included at least one literal wall of men.
Subak told of her undergraduate studies at Dartmouth University, where her class was only the fifth to include women. In large lecture courses, the men would stand to create a physical barrier between the professor and the women. "When a woman raised her hand to ask a question," Subak said, "the men would stand around her so she couldn't be seen."
Undeterred, Subak graduated with a degree in earth sciences and economics. She found jobs as a geologist and in banking before a volunteer role at a health clinic inspired her to apply to medical school. She graduated from Stanford's School of Medicine in 1991.
During the question and answer session, the conversation turned to the perceptions of leaders and how men are often described as strong or forceful while women get tagged with less complimentary language. The department chairs also talked about the advantages they have as women in leading their departments.
"I could bring consensus to a room," Pfeffer said. "I think we do that better than the guys."
Women are now the majority of students entering medical school nationally. A majority of bachelor's degrees earned in biological and biomedical sciences are earned by women. In medical schools, the future may, in fact, be female.
Recordings from the event will be available.
Photos by Steve Fisch