Mattel Inc.’s release of astrophysicist Barbie this fall is another in long line of high-profile efforts to inspire children to pursue science, technology, engineering and math. In an op-ed in USA Today, Silvia Blemker, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, argues that the doll, although well-intentioned, reinforces the biggest obstacle for attracting women to engineering: the “cultural message of unattainable perfection.”
In this Q&A with Elizabeth Mather, the UVA Engineering School’s executive director of communications , Blemker shares her perspectives on why women students may be discouraged from considering faculty careers and what she is doing to change the conversation.
Much work remains to increase the number of women who pursue science and engineering faculty positions at institutions of higher education. What do you think are the key barriers?
The way I see this issue may be different from others. I think that academia appears to women a much less welcoming place than it really is, and sometimes faculty perpetuate that image.
Faculty tend to dwell on how they work 24/7, how they have to have a thick skin, how it's so hard – on and on and on. I think that dissuades women, because why would someone want to go into a field everybody talks about in such negative terms?
The thing is, what people may not see is how much personal and professional flexibility faculty members have and all the opportunities there are to make a positive impact.
There are some real truths about the challenges of being a faculty member, such as grant funding. Grants are not easy to get, but the data shows that women can get them just as easily as men. As women, we're ingrained to think that any given failure, like one grant not getting funded, is a complete failure. Many women faculty or Ph.D. students get discouraged if 100 percent of their grants don’t get funded, because they feel like they have to do it perfectly.
You argue that young people, women especially, fixate on “being perfect.” What definition of perfection is this, in your view? And how do you make the connection between a young woman’s drive to be perfect with her not entering academia?
I think we fixate on our flaws. I still fixate on my own flaws - my parenting, my work, my mentorship of students, my teaching. Whenever I give lectures and seminars, I always think about my delivery and how it could've been better.
I see my students as far more perfect and mature than I was, but I see that they are fixated on their imperfections. They’re so put together, but they don't see themselves like that, and that's what's frustrating.
For example, during office hours, I often have female students who come in saying they don’t know how to solve a problem in the homework. I’ll ask to see their work, and they’ve already figured out the whole problem. They had it right and they know the material, but they’re questioning themselves. The way they perceive their own knowledge is really different.
As a faculty member, you're constantly getting evaluated for the purpose of making your science and your teaching better. But if you fixate on what's not quite right, and that causes anxiety and becomes your narrative, then you could perceive academia as a hard life.
We’ve got to try to show people of diverse backgrounds a more realistic and balanced view, so they can see this as a great life. I try to be a model of what I’m talking about, just by being a normal person and being genuine about it. For example, I used to send e-mails late at night or early in the morning, but I rarely do that now. If I have to leave to take care of my kids, I leave, and I make that visible to my students. A number of them have kids, too.
As the chair of an all-female faculty search committee for the UVA Department of Biomedical Engineering, what have you and the committee done to help broaden the pipeline for diversity?
One of the simplest things we’ve done is to make our searches very broad, not targeting a specific research area, because that becomes self-perpetuating: If we don’t have diverse perspectives, we will not have diversity in research areas, which in turn reduces our ability to attract diverse candidates.
We’ve also carefully written our ads to be more welcoming, focusing on the impact faculty can have in biomedical engineering at UVA and beyond, and emphasizing important roles like mentorship of students and advocating for diversity and inclusion.
Having an all-female committee also shows that we are being intentional. Plus, it was a lot of fun.
"UVA possesses this unique combination of strengths in engineering, basic science and medicine, and because of our size, faculty can actually navigate and make connections across those areas quite easily. UVA has a very collegial culture; people like to work together. That's what has made UVA a good fit for me - our research strengths and the willingness of people to collaborate."
Silvia Blemker, PhD, Professor of Biomedical Engineering
How did you get interested in biomedical engineering?
My parents are from Argentina, and they moved to the United States for graduate school. My dad was a mathematician, and he was totally blind. He had a fellowship at the University of Michigan for his Ph.D. My mom went back to get her Ph.D. when I was 3, and she ended up becoming a professor, too. So, I grew up with two immigrant, professor parents in Lawrence, Kansas. It was definitely a unique upbringing and definitely math-oriented. We talked about calculus at the dinner table. I think my Dad might have been an engineer if he hadn't been blind.
If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I was 12, I would have said I wanted to be either a ballerina or a mathematician. I was zeroed in on science and math. I didn't clue into biomedical engineering until I was trying to figure out what to study in college. Initially, I was not planning to go to school for engineering because my older brother was studying to be an engineer, and naturally I didn’t want to do the same thing my brother was doing.
But around 1991, I got a letter from a university with one of the early biomedical engineering programs. The letter pointed out that I should consider BME because I had done well in both biology and math. My parents encouraged me to try it; they wanted me to find something I was passionate about.
So, I went to Northwestern University for biomedical engineering, and the first two years were hard! Some of my peers had gone to prep schools on the East coast, and they had great study skills. I didn't quite have my act together. But I wasn't the top student in my high school, either. My high school was big, and I flew a bit under the radar. So, I didn't come to college thinking I should get all A-pluses and earn a spot at the top of every class.
I didn’t really enjoy BME until my junior year when I took a biomechanics elective. It was the first time I saw the combination of math, biology, engineering and physics and how we could use that framework to help people with movement disorders. A light bulb lit up for me: ‘Wow, I can do all this cool stuff and actually help people.’
I think that’s a pretty typical experience for undergrads, because they spend the first two years learning all the fundamentals, which are not as exciting. I try to tell all of my undergraduate advisees to stick with it; it's hard at first, but it will get fun, and you will see the benefits.
Your work now focuses on the function and biology of muscles, and the diseases that can disrupt muscle function. What drives your passion about this area of research, and what do you envision having accomplished 20 or 30 years from now?
It stems partially from growing up with a disabled parent, because that was a pretty important part of my upbringing. My dad was totally blind, but he navigated the sighted world and became a math professor. He had something important to contribute. I learned early that people who have disabilities can really impact the world, and by helping them, I am enabling them to make those contributions.
The most rewarding thing would be seeing the research I do, and the research my colleagues do, lead to a better quality of life. For example, we're interested in muscular dystrophy, and I would like to see the work that’s happening in my lab and in the entire field lead to new ideas, so that boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy can have a longer, better life.
I think if you focus on the idea that you have to be the one who discovers the cure – the hero vision – it can be very isolating and maybe not productive overall.
Maybe I will be the one, or maybe it will be one of my students or a colleague. But I can contribute to discovery. I think about it as moving the needle on the field of knowledge in general, in order to create a better life for others.