Must a female scientist be ambitious?

Marina  K. Holz
March 9, 2023

I recently was chatting with a colleague about a leadership position that opened up at her institution. “You should apply!” I urged her, sensing an opportunity. My friend was hesitant; she didn’t think she was ready or qualified.

A few days later, we talked again. My friend looked at her professional accomplishments and compared them to those of people who typically hold this leadership position. Of course, she had the prerequisite experience to apply. She still didn’t think she was ready, however, and thought she needed to participate in leadership training through her professional society. This is a known phenomenon — women think they need to be perfectly qualified for the positions they seek, whereas men are less picky about their own credentials for the job.

After I became a tenure-track professor, I started seeking out leadership positions at my institution because I wanted to create opportunities for students. For example, I established the first American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology undergraduate Student Chapter on my campus. After I achieved tenure, I had to use my voice to advocate for the professional interests of my colleagues. I was elected to the university faculty council and eventually became the chair of my academic division. Currently, I am the dean of the graduate school at my institution and a member of the Women in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Committee of the ASBMB, working to promote and support the careers of women.

When I started sitting at the leadership table, I noticed that there still are fewer women at that table than men. At my current institution, I am the first female dean of my academic unit. Things are getting better, just not fast enough.

We still need to remove barriers that make science careers more challenging for women than men. Women now have equal access to undergraduate and graduate science education, but still there are fewer female than male assistant professors, and the disparity grows as you look up the career ladder. At senior leadership levels in the academy, men greatly outnumber women as department chairs, center directors, deans, provosts and presidents. One question we sometimes hear asked is whether women are just not as ambitious as men.

Looking around academic institutions and professional organizations, I see clearly that many women are ambitious and willing to pursue leadership opportunities. Women increasingly are elected as provosts and presidents of universities and chosen to lead professional and scientific societies. However, we also have to recognize that different women may have different ambitions and goals.

For many of my female colleagues, considering the careers of their spouses, the school choices of their children and proximity to extended family may eclipse any of the benefits of pursuing greater leadership opportunities or other forms of career advancement. We need to accept that women may have motivations beyond achievements in the workplace and that career achievements may be secondary to work–life integration.

Professional ambition comes with a price. Aggressively climbing the career ladder is difficult, and as the expression goes, it is lonely at the top. For example, when I became dean, I couldn’t continue to be what I think of as a regular scientist and walk into my colleagues’ offices to chat about an idea — apparently, some faculty members find it somewhat alarming when the dean enters their office unannounced.

Leadership requires constant decision making and risk taking, which can exact an emotional toll and affect your overall well-being. We need to encourage women who are ambitious, but we want to create networks and systems that will provide support and feedback and will identify women as successful when they achieve their own professional goals.

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Marina  K. Holz

Marina K. Holz is the dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College and a member of the ASBMB’s Women in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Committee.

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