Finding chemistry while facing gender bias

Diane Wotta was an undergraduate science major 27 years ago when one of her professors spoke bluntly on the first day of the class. If you’re a woman, he told his students, you won’t get an A in class.

“It was many years ago,” Wotta said. “In a class of 20, only 5 of us were women. We were openly discriminated against, blatantly discriminated against.” Yet all five of those female science majors, Wotta noted, have gone on to become medical doctors or Ph.D.s.

Today Wotta holds a Ph.D. and a manager-level position at R&D Systems, Inc., a Minneapolis-based biotech company. This month, she will be sworn in as president of Sigma Delta Epsilon, the national organization of Graduate Women in Science (GWIS).

Her first job as president of GWIS will be to attend the national conference, which will be held at the University of Minnesota June 13-17 and will mark the organization’s 86th year. A highlight of the event will be the June 16 public symposium that will explore cultural myths about women scientists and identify ways they can gain more leadership positions in the academic and private sectors. The symposium topic was chosen after the National Academy of Science released a report stating that although there are a number of qualified women scientists, they are badly underrepresented in leadership positions. The symposium will provide networking opportunities for women scientists and focus on ways they can encourage girls and young women to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Wotta said that although the cultural climate for female scientists has improved in the past 20 years, discrimination still exists. It is difficult, she said, to be the only female. Men play rounds of golf or attend happy-hour events without inviting their female counterparts. “Women don’t get invited,” she explained, “because there is still a lot of apprehension about whether or not it is appropriate or socially acceptable.” And important business decisions are often made in these informal settings-ones that women aren’t privy to. “I know what it’s like to come back to work in the morning and suddenly find out decisions were made without you,” Wotta said. “You leave work thinking you understand what’s going on and you come back in the morning to find the rules have changed. It is disorienting. It’s really about how information comes down the chain.”

Symposium co-chair Dee McManus, the administrative director of the University of Minnesota’s Lillehei Heart Institute and board chair of GWIS, said that women still face discrimination because of their family commitments. She hopes the symposium will address how women scientists can learn to balance the demands of their jobs. “Women don’t know how to work the system at the leadership level,” she explained. “The good women are asked to be on too many committees, and they accept them all, and then find they are stretched too thin. They suddenly don’t have time to do their own research and in the academic world, the pinnacle of success is how many research grants you can secure.”

Beyond helping women scientists find balance, however, McManus wants symposium speakers to answer some pointed questions. A panel discussion will host four university and college deans speaking to the shortage of women leaders in academia. “We want to ask the deans, given the fact that there is not a large percentage of women in academia, what have you done to encourage or recruit women to be leaders at the department and division levels?”

Keynote speaker Dr. Nancy “Rusty” Barceló, vice president and vice provost for equity and diversity at the University of Minnesota, will address the conference at a luncheon. She said that along with facing workplace bias, “it’s really difficult to be a groundbreaker. When you’re the only one of a certain kind, you’re not part of the social group. A woman may hold a leadership position, yet who are her peers?”

Women scientists, Barcelo said, “… need to be good role models. They need to serve as mentors to young women and continue to be engaged, whether that’s through tutoring, speaking to schoolchildren or volunteering. And many women scientists already do this. In fact, I’ve yet to come across one who isn’t.”

Dr. Michelle Carter has found support among fellow women scientists. After earning her doctorate and working in the university’s neurology department, she set aside her career to raise her three children. In the meantime, Carter has found an intellectual and social outlet as president of Xi Chapter, the local affiliate of the GWIS. Networking with fellow Xi Chapter members, Carter said, has reassured her that she will be able to reenter the workforce. “I’ve heard almost every woman who is over 50 in the bunch say, ‘Yes, I did that, too, and it will all work out.’ It really helps,” Carter said, “to hear that I’m not alone, that my choices aren’t crazy and that I can find balance.”

Finding gender balance in the scientific community and creating a network of professional peers is what the GWIS conference is all about. “As women scientists,” said Carter, “we need to offer a helping hand to one another. Women bring about more women.”

Graduate Women in Science Xi
Read about it:
“Beyond Bias and Barriers” by the National Academy of Science

Know a girl who’s interested in science and engineering? The National Academy of Engineering’s website,, boasts fun facts, experiments, career advice and profiles of women scientists.