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October 2017 GWIS Lead

Wednesday, October 25, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Shultz
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October 2017
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
Elizabeth Travis discusses the importance of sponsorship and diversity for scientific progress.
Dr. Travis is the Associate Vice President for Women & Minority Faculty Programs and Mattie Allen Fair Professor in Cancer Research in the Department of Experimental Radiation Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. We reached Dr. Travis by email during her travels for her thoughts on sponsorship and scientific progress.
As a PhD student, Dr. Elizabeth Travis was a bench scientist focused on identifying the molecular and genetic mechanisms behind complications in cancer treatments. Her significant contributions to the scientific community have been equaled, if not surpassed, by her ongoing commitment to advancing women in science and medicine. Even in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Dr. Travis has been committed to sharing with us her experiences and expertise. We commend Dr. Travis on her career-long dedication to advancing women in science and medicine, and we welcome her as a featured GWIS Lead researcher and webinar guest.
Dr. Travis presenting at the 2017 GWIS National meeting in Sioux Falls.
Photo by Wen Duan.
The percentage of women obtaining doctoral degrees in many sciences, particularly in the medical sciences, has kept pace with or exceeded that of men for many years. Why is it then that women remain under-represented at all faculty and leadership levels, especially in top positions?  

There is not a simple answer to this. In terms of faculty rank, some of problem at the junior ranks is that the percentage of women applicants does not reflect the pool. Why that is the case is unclear. Possibly, women are choosing other careers as they think the academic path is too difficult. However, when they do apply, they are chosen for these positions and excel. In terms of senior ranks, a leaky pipeline still exists. Funding remains a problem. Women take longer to get promoted… Finally, leadership—this is the most recalcitrant issue, and certainly unconscious bias is a factor. Women need to be encouraged to apply for these positions. Certainly, things have improved but there is more to be done. 

Why is diversity so important to scientific progress? 

All of the data indicate that diverse groups provide more innovative solutions to complex problems than homogeneous groups; gender diversity has been shown to positively impact the science produced by teams, and papers co-authored by ethnically diverse groups lead to greater scientific impact as measured by impact factor and citations.

How is the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center working to promote gender equity? 

The Office of Women and Minority Faculty Programs, originally Women Faculty Programs, was charged with recruiting, promoting and retaining women faculty and increasing the percentage of women faculty leaders. Almost 50% of assistant and associate professors are women—a result of helping chairs recruit women—and the percentage of women leaders has almost doubled due to intentional focus on grooming our own and identifying and recruiting women from other institutions.

What changes can an institution implement to help support women, and how can we help prepare women faculty to compete for top leadership positions? 

Review policies for those that are inadvertently biased against women and change them—on-site child care and flexibility in work schedules are some big ones. In terms of leadership, send them to leadership development programs, suggest them for high profile committees, and prepare them to become the chair. Financial training is critical; you have to be able to follow the money. And finally, make sure they have sponsors.
Watch this video to see how Dr. Travis blends science and advocacy at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
What can academia learn from the corporate world?

Sponsorship has been a program used in the business world for many years to advance women into leadership positions. It differs from mentorship in a few crucial ways: it is public, a sponsor has influence and power at the leadership level, and it is a two-way street with responsibilities for both the sponsor and protégé.

How might we need to adapt a corporate sponsorship model to work in academia? 

There are many ways to do this, part of it is that women have to be visible to sponsors. Also, sponsors are responsible for looking across the academic landscape and identifying talent that is not visible to others and bringing those people forward.

Do you think that women in academic science face unique challenges in terms of pursuing equity? Are there generational differences?

I think the challenges facing women in academic science are the same as those for women in all industries, unfortunately. I would hope that things will be different with the younger generation, and in some ways, they are. For example, men are more interested in work-life integration and do want to be present for important family events and be more of a partner at home. 

Why do women need sponsors, and why do you see sponsorship as so important and distinct from other solutions, such as mentorship? 

Women need sponsors because this is a path to leadership that relies on an individual with power and influence to recognize and increase our visibility to others—they make the talented, invisible candidate visible. It is distinct from mentorship in many ways: it is a public endorsement of an individual while mentorship is not public; the sponsor has to have power while mentors can be at any rank; and the sponsor is focused on advancement.

What is sponsorship not about? What roles are a sponsor not expected to fill?

It is not hands on, nor is it about holding your hand. Sponsors open doors to positions, and  a protégé must walk through and perform. Usually there are no regularly scheduled meetings. It is less about what the sponsors do than who they are.

Why should someone consider serving as a sponsor? 

I think part, if not the most important part, of being a senior leader is to identify and prepare the next generation of leaders. That is a very important legacy for all of us in science. We want to pass the baton knowing we have the best and brightest taking it forward.

How would you recommend scientists go about finding, or connecting with, a sponsor?

Be visible, volunteer for stretch assignments, have an elevator speech always ready, tell your story, don’t wait until you have done the job to apply for the job. Lean in.
Dr. Travis talks with Drs. Michelle Booze (left) and Archana Chattergee (right) at the 2017 GWIS National Meeting. 
Photo by Wen Duan.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists working to become leaders in their fields? How can aspiring scientists help you?

Do your best, show up, speak up, be prepared, be on committees and plan to be the chair, say yes if asked, choose important committees—ones that have power, and learn about finances which is something women don’t think to do.

How do you spend your time, and how has that evolved?

I am totally involved in administration, but I continue to write grants and publish papers relevant to women in science. 

How would you proceed through your career today if you were starting over? 

Hmm… It is hard to answer this because if I change any of the steps, then I would not necessarily be as successful.

What is the most important lesson you have learned about being a sponsor? About being a leader?

On being a sponsor: To be honest and transparent with candidates who I do not feel are ready for sponsorship and to advise them on how to better prepare themselves.  

On being a leader: Listen and seek input, ask questions. Stop being busy, and be mindful. 

What have you realized about the promotion of gender equity?

It is hard work, and you cannot stop doing it and monitoring progress; it is frequently two steps forward and one step backward.

What do you see as upcoming trends in academia, especially related to advancement of women?

By sheer numbers women will assume leadership positions, but we will have to continue to be intentional; it will not happen on its own.

What advances do you hope to see because of your activities?

More women in leadership and an acknowledgement that women and men may have different career paths but both have value. Also that diversity is excellence, and excellence is diversity. Diverse teams perform better and find better and more innovative solutions to complex problems. We need many different people around the table in the broadest sense of the term.
Dr. Travis presenting at the 2017 GWIS National Meeting in Sioux Falls. 
Photo by Wen Duan.
Interview conducted by Catherine Steffel and edited by Rozzy Finn.
Animation by Maria Adonay, Katie Rondem, and Rita Algorri.

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Founded in 1921, Graduate Women in Science is an inter-disciplinary society of scientists who collectively seek to advance the participation and recognition of women in science and to foster research through grants, awards and fellowships. We comprise over 20 active chapters of more than 800 women who are "United in Friendship through Science" to support and inspire member professional goals and mutual appreciation of science. Learn more at

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