Yes, Even CRISPR Pioneer Jennifer Doudna Experiences Gender Bias

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Jennifer Doudna, UC Berkeley professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology who co-invented CRISPR, a groundbreaking gene-editing technology.  (Keegan Houser/UC Berkeley)

A Google search for the exact phrase "barriers to women in science" brings up 85,000 results. "Barriers for women in science" fetches another 30k and change.

Here's a 2010 report from the American Association of University Women that found negative stereotypes contributing to implicit bias against females in the STEM fields. This 2014 survey found 70 percent of female scientist trainees doing fieldwork had experienced sexual harassment.

So no, it's not a new concept. And yet, it was still a little unnerving to hear someone as prestigious as Jennifer Doudna -- a pioneer of the gene-editing technique CRISPR whom The New York Times said "helped make one of the most monumental discoveries in biology" -- say on KQED Forum recently that she, too, was hitting the proverbial glass ceiling. When asked if she'd ever experienced gender discrimination, she told host Michael Krasny:

"This topic comes up a lot and I have to say, earlier in my career, honestly, I never gave it a thought. I didn't think about my gender, I pursued my passion for science and research. But I do have to tell you, as I've gone on in my career, particularly the last 10 years or so, I've gotten to a point where I do now see signs of the glass ceiling. I don't think it's always intentional bias, but ... I  do experience bias against women in some settings.

"I think that what we're seeing is that it's very difficult for women to break into the top echelons of leadership in science. I'm not talking so much here about university leadership, but more leadership in the highest levels of public policy and the government, as well as in company board rooms."

Overcoming Bias

Doudna is not alone. Last month, a panel at the Women in Science Summit in San Francisco shared personal experiences of gender discrimination.


"All along the way I would hear about my opportunities in science," said oceanographer Anne Russell. "For example, ‘You could marry this guy, he’s a really good hydrologist.' [Or] you’d be talking to someone about your ideas and then he puts his arm around you.”

Russell now runs her own lab. But she is still aware of the potential for being minimized. When the press covers her research, she said, she makes sure she is the one piloting the boat.

Dawn Wright, chief scientist at the Environmental System Research Institute, said she was once on a months-long expedition at sea where she was one of five women on board, and the only woman of color. Despite her trepidation, she became friends with a male oil driller who had never worked with an African-American, let alone one who was a female scientist. She urged her colleagues, outnumbered in the male-dominated sciences, to persevere.

"There is peril out there; we can't avoid it," she said. "But there are really, really good things that can come from it as well if we continue to be courageous."

Finally there was Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis who has become an outspoken critic on social media of the lack of diversity at scientific conferences. He said his awareness about barriers to women's participation started when he saw a nanny watching a baby outside a scientific conference; she'd been hired so the infant's mother could attend the conference.

“It was literally one of those light bulb epiphany moments where my privilege in my life came front and center to me, because it had never occurred to me to that this would be an issue for anybody,” Eisen said. “I changed on that day from being an oblivious, privileged person to being a little less oblivious, privileged person,” he said.