Who Are You, Little Girl? Being a Woman, and a Leader, in Science

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Like a lot of scientists, I am very goal-oriented, so after I got my PhD in toxicology, I set out to become a leader in my field by the time I was 40. To get there, I knew I had to be acknowledged by the top researchers in my field, get invited to speak at important conferences, organize conferences, and publish in top journals. I’m happy to say that, with the support of my mentors, colleagues, family and friends, I was able to achieve my goal.

It wasn’t without interesting blips along the way. When I was in my 30s, I was invited to my first committee meeting full of senior researchers, and I was put into a small group to brainstorm about new program ideas for a funding agency. I recall that I was one of two women among the 40 people in the room. We were divided into groups of five, and we sat in little conversation circles. One of the men in my circle was a leading researcher from a prominent U.S. university. He was sitting next to me with his back turned, which, by the way, is difficult to do in a circle. His body language made it clear that he was uncomfortable with me being there, and every time I tried to speak, he cut me off. Trying to be polite, I just backed off and deferred to him because of his stature in the field. After a while I realized that if I was going to participate at all, I had to forcefully insert myself into the conversation, and so I blurted out my idea. At that point, he turned to me and said, “Wow, that was a good idea. Now, who are you, little girl?”

Those were his exact words. He acknowledged me in a way—he looked at me, he knew I existed, he said that it was an interesting idea—but his words and his tone were cutting and demoralizing.  The dynamic between us didn’t change until years later, after I had interacted with him more frequently and started to genuinely compete with him on a scientific level.

Today, the attitude toward women working in the sciences is so much different than when I first started. I don’t often feel that I’m treated differently than anyone else at the table because of my gender. Sadly, though, it’s still true that I’m the only woman at the table in many of the meetings that I attend.

I wish I had good insight into how to increase the number of women scientists and leaders of scientific organizations. I do everything I can to encourage women already working in science, including mentoring some very talented women at NIST. We have some tremendous women here whom I hope will rise to leadership positions, and maybe even take my job someday.

I’m not ready to let go just yet, though.

Men and Women as Leaders

women in S&E graphic

Women’s share of science and engineering (S&E) degrees has increased at the post graduate level since 2000, but they are still underrepresented. Credit: National Science Foundation

Gender alone doesn’t indicate whether a leader will be good or bad, strong or weak, effective or ineffective. However, there are gender-specific differences that I think we should all pay attention to if we are to be effective leaders. For example, communication differences between male and female leaders have been studied extensively. We have some gender differences in the way we communicate, and that’s OK.

A few years ago, after reading an article on differences in gender communication styles, I asked my colleagues and friends, “How am I going to train all the men in the room to understand how women communicate?” But then I realized that the responsibility of the audience is only to listen openly. The speaker is in charge of communicating the message and effective communicators adapt communication styles to their audience. To communicate successfully, I think it’s my responsibility to be adaptive, to know my audience, to speak to the audience in a way they can understand.

Even though there are some gender-specific differences that are the subject of much study, general qualities of good leaders are the same for male and female leaders. The strongest leaders that I know work hard, love their jobs, think creatively, communicate their message effectively, take some risks, communicate their successes, and take ownership of their failures.

Balancing Work and Child-Rearing

I found the most important thing for me while I was balancing my home life and work life—raising my three boys and managing an exciting career—was to be present. When there was an important meeting at work, I did everything I could to shuffle my family-related schedule to be there and to participate fully. When there was a conference deadline or when my boss urgently needed something, I prioritized those things. After my son, Payton, was born, I worked part-time for a few years. My boss once told me he felt like I was working full-time because I was always there when he needed me.

At home, I did the same thing. I prioritized the things that I thought were most important. I shifted my schedule so I could be there when the kids came home from school, and I made sure I could be there for teacher meetings and soccer games and school projects. I volunteered on Friday afternoons in the classroom. I made sure I was there for things that were most important in my children’s lives.

Still, I always felt guilty because I was worried I wasn’t giving enough of myself to either place. My guess is that most working parents feel that way. When my middle son was in high school, I told him that I felt guilty for not being home all the time like some of the other parents, and that I felt that I was never doing enough. He said to me, “I don’t want you to be like other people. I think it’s so cool that you’re a mom who works and is so successful.” I didn’t try to hide who I was from him, and, as it turns out, he was proud of me.

The thought of that still makes me smile.

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About Author

Laurie Locascio

Laurie E. Locascio is the Acting Associate Director for Laboratory Programs. As Acting ADLP, she provides direction and operational guidance for NIST's scientific and technical mission-focused laboratory programs and serves as principal deputy to the Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST director, among other duties.

8 Comments

  1. Stephen Knight on

    Hi Laurie:

    Great story well written! I have seven granddaughters, one is off to Stanford and wants to be an engineer. I will share this with her.

    Steve Knight

  2. ” But then I realized that the responsibility of the audience is only to listen openly. The speaker is in charge of communicating the message and effective communicators adapt communication styles to their audience. To communicate successfully, I think it’s my responsibility to be adaptive, to know my audience, to speak to the audience in a way they can understand.”

    I agree with you in principle, but I think scientists still have a problem with listening openly. Women are still judged for communicating in a different way, even if they are as effective. There are more subtle, modern equivalents of being called “little girl” that happen on a daily basis, and women in my field are aware of them. We’ve certainly progressed over the years, but we’re no where near done.

    Thanks for writing this piece, and for being a good example.

    • Laurie Locascio
      Laurie Locascio on

      Thank you so much for your comment. I agree that the audience should be responsible for listening openly. It is something that we always have to be aware of and challenge ourselves on as there can be unconscious bias in listening. And I will amplify your message–“we’re no where near done.”

  3. What a perfect question – “Who are you, little girl?” to frame the problem that women face in fields that are dominated by men. Women have to not only work twice as hard and shine twice as brightly to prove that they can be counted at the table, but their reproductive role is often seen as an impediment to a brilliant and productive career.

    You are indeed an inspiration to all women. I also love the closing of the blog where your son says that you’re are cool because of your success. Isn’t that the ultimate gratification! You are raising an amazing son…one who will take that forward and inspire other girls/women around him. Social change is slow…but sometimes generational.

    Congratulations!

    • Laurie Locascio
      Laurie Locascio on

      Thank you so much for taking the time so share your thoughts. And you are right, it is up to my sons and all of our children to continue progress toward making each one of us feel welcome, included and respected in the workplace.

  4. Congratulations, Dr. Locascio, on demonstrating that women (or girls) can accomplish so much even when faced with so many barriers. Of course, not everyone can do it because it takes considerable discipline and dedication to balance the demands of family and profession. I doubt that many men could do it. You are certainly a role model to be admired.
    I am currently a member of the Presidium of the European Academy of Sciences (an old boys’ club with currently only 10% women scientist members), and one of my goals is to increase the representation of qualified women in the Academy. As you, I hope that women will reach their rightful place among the elite of science.

    • Laurie Locascio
      Laurie Locascio on

      Thank you so much for the generous comments. As you know, I have had incredible mentors throughout my career. Thank you for being one of them.

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