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NIH Women Scientists Advocate for Equity

A screen shot shows women, in their homes, discussing work during a virtual video lecture.

Clockwise from upper right: Dr. Gisela Storz of NICHD; moderator Dr. Erika Barr of OITE; Dr. Courtney Fitzhugh of NHLBI; Dr. Audrey Thurm of NIMH; Dr. Paule Joseph of NIAAA/NINR and the sign language interpreter

At the EDI Women in Science webinar, panelists also emphasized long-term challenges facing women in science careers. 

NHLBI’s Dr. Courtney Fitzhugh and NICHD’s Dr. Gisela Storz discussed the challenge of gaining respect and equity as women scientists.

A few weeks ago, Fitzhugh—an investigator with a medical degree—was invited to join a committee and speak about her work experience with transplants. On the virtual panel discussion, she recounted, the male doctor speaking before her was properly introduced but she felt snubbed when the moderator introduced her as Courtney Fitzhugh, omitting her physician credential. 

“I shouldn’t have to remind people that I’m where I am today for a reason, not because I’m a woman, but because I’ve worked really hard,” and earned it, she said.

Storz, when starting her career 30 years ago, remembers hearing the hopeful mantra that the scientific workforce is changing for women, becoming more inclusive. Looking back, though, little has changed over the years, she said.

“Something that has frustrated me now, being in this business [a long time] is how glacial the change has been in terms of increasing the number of women in leadership positions, not to mention the people of diverse backgrounds,” she said. 

“At one point in my career, I was too frustrated by that as well as some inequities regarding space and salaries. I went to NIH leadership and I said, ‘There needs to be a committee to look at this.’” Storz helped organize what became the NIH equity committee, established in 2017, to look at salaries, resources and leadership diversity among the institutes and centers.

Lecture moderator Dr. Erika Barr of OITE commended the panelists for their work to inspire women to enter the field. 

“One of the impressive things about all of you,” she said, “is that you are doers. Whenever we think about increasing diversity, having that pipeline, often we say we want to diversify and have more women and more people of color,” and you’re helping to get it done and change the culture.

“We have a lot of work to do…but changes are happening,” said NIAAA/NINR tenure-track investigator Dr. Paule Joseph. She has appreciated seeing more women in leadership positions. “It’s a great inspiration to be able to see especially senior women scientists and say, ‘I can be there one day.’”

NIMH’s Dr. Audrey Thurm hopes more women continue entering biomedical science careers. “This is where the action is, here at NIH,” she said, “and women need to be in the action. They need to be in it to continue to change attitudes, science and then policy.”—Dana Talesnik

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