UCSF Women Reflect on Gender, Work and Science

By Arezu Sarvestani and Dresden Joswig

Walk into just about any UC San Francisco classroom, lab or clinic and you’ll find smart, passionate and driven women. Women now make up over 58 percent of UCSF’s student and trainee population, and the percentage of female faculty members topped 50 percent in 2017, up from 44 percent in 2010.

Unfortunately, women still represent only 29 percent of leadership across all U.S. universities, and in science leadership that number is even smaller. Further, nationwide just one-third of hospital executives are women.

We spoke to UCSF women – scientists, clinicians, students, staff and alums – about their experiences with gender, science and success.


When you started out, was your gender something you were often made aware of?

Nerissa Ko, MD (UCSF neurointensivist and women’s advocate): When I was starting out as a young attending doctor it really struck me that patients would look right through me [to find] the physician in the room, and often pick the taller, male medical student and address them as doctor. I think it’s often the stereotype of what a physician looks like. They’re not expecting a short Asian woman.

Julie Gerberding, MD (UCSF alum and the first female director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): I really had such strong role models around me, in addition to my mother and grandmother. All my mentors in college were women. Professors and deans were just amazing women. And I grew up in that era when women were marching in the streets, we were taking the night. The era of strong feminism was very empowering to me as a university student. I really didn’t connect with the limitations that can be placed on women until I was much further along in my career.

Monica McLemore, PhD, MPH, RN (UCSF clinician-scientist and reproductive health advocate): The intersection of race and gender was always a problem – not for me, but for others, particularly how I’ve always been underestimated from day one. I remember walking into my anatomy and physiology courses and other basic science classes in college and having to explain how much I loved science and how prepared I was.

Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD (UCSF molecular biologist and Nobel laureate): People would make deprecating remarks about women in general. Because I was just so driven by science, I didn't overtly react to them. But I reacted inside.

The deprecating remarks that were made about women made you want to shrivel up a little inside and made you want to retreat a little bit, but you had to keep on going.

Mignon Loh, MD (UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital pediatric oncologist): [Yes], as has my race. I was one of three Asians in my public school in New Jersey. In private high school, I lost a student government presidency race by a handful of votes and heard a white boy loudly assert that he would never vote for a "ching chong chinaman chink" to be his student government president. In medical school, I heard comments from colleagues who thought I had been given special dispensation and admission because of my gender.

Have you developed any strategies to respond to gender bias?

McLemore: My favorite strategy has always been to live up to my expectations in my own mind and the minds of my ancestors. I’m a huge sci-fi fan and geeky person, so the idea that I dream big must come from people who came before me. I hope I make them proud.

Nancy Ascher, MD, PhD (UCSF liver transplant surgery pioneer): I went to medical school in 1970, one of 20 women among 220 students. We were militant because we were part of the [women’s] liberation movement. We taught self-help to the undergraduate women in Ann Arbor [taking tips from] "Our Bodies, Ourselves," and encouraging women to take charge of their own health. 

Gerberding: Early in my career, the Chancellor commissioned a study [that found] women at UCSF are making "great progress" in career development, and at their [then-]current rate of improvement it would be approximately 2060 before parity was achieved. That was a wake-up call [to take action]. I initiated a committee with a colleague on professional development and equity at the Infectious Disease Society of America. And as I progressed, I continued to find myself being asked to sponsor the committee on women, to sponsor the women’s network. I always say yes, but I’m getting a little tired of the need for those kinds of things.

Did you ever have a moment of doubt, in which you thought you might not continue on your career path?

Ko: No, I have the best job in the world and I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else. No matter what challenges one faces in your career path, you have to keep asking yourself, "Am I doing the right thing?" The answer has always been yes. That’s probably what continues to drive me today.

Tejal Desai, PhD (Chair of the UCSF Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences): I remember sitting with one of my undergraduate advisors. I wasn’t doing so well. He said, "You really should think about a different field. Maybe engineering isn’t where you want to be. [Consider] a different concentration." At that point, I was really considering dropping out. I didn’t have the confidence to cope with it. And I wondered, "Is that something he’d say to everyone?" It turned out I had a research mentor who told me to stick it out, who said that things would improve, and who reminded me that it was just one class.

Jessica Jencek (UCSF assistant vice chancellor and fundraising leader): No, I don’t have moments of doubt. Of course I do have not-so-good days, but ultimately I feel fundraising is what I’m supposed to be doing and what I want to be doing.

Gerberding: I have never, ever, ever doubted that at the core, I’m a doctor. When I come back to UCSF for two weeks a year [as an adjunct faculty member] it’s the highlight of my life. I love medicine. I love the work and the humanitarian purpose. I have never doubted that.

Blackburn: People used to ask me that question, and I used to jokingly say, "Yeah, about once a week." Because doing science is hard, especially really cutting-edge science. You don't know whether it's going to be successful or not. I don't grapple with that type of self-doubt anymore, but it was certainly true for much of my career. I was always thinking I had to go that extra mile, because, if I didn't, then I somehow wouldn't be good enough.

Loh: Not really, no. I love what I do and my belief that I can make a difference propels me through the difficult times.

What needs to change to attract more girls and young women to STEM-related fields, retain them, and ensure they can advance into leadership positions? How can we better support female leaders?

Desai: I think it’s about cultivating a community – even at the earliest years – where girls and young women [know] they don’t need to conform to a certain stereotype. Show them you can do STEM, you can do art, you can do both. Beyond that, provide the encouragement and active – instead of passive – mentorship. Identifying women early on and promote them and encourage them to take risks.

Jencek: I think we need to ask the question, "Are we doing everything we can to account for this reality that the burden of caretaking often falls disproportionately on women so that everyone has equal opportunities to contribute in the workplace?" I would also ask, "Are strong women leaders embraced in the same way as strong men?" I think often, there are different standards between the genders. If a woman talks as much as a man, she might be received in a different way. If a woman is quiet or more reserved, she may be perceived differently than a man who is more introverted. He might be perceived as wise and thoughtful, whereas she may be seen as not participating, or not having opinions.

Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH (First female UCSF Chancellor and current CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation): Whether or not you have children, very, very few women have someone at home who exists to make their life easier. It’s important to recognize, because the scientific field has always put a high priority on long hours, late nights, and overnights. It’s even more than that once you get to leadership roles. I was surprised when I became Chancellor at UCSF, how much expectation there was that my spouse would donate his time. That was because all the other spouses before him were women. Very few women have partners who signed up for that.

Lisa Cisneros (UCSF senior communications director and diversity advocate): We need to hail these women as heroes, not just acknowledging them when they win a prestigious prize or publish a ground-breaking paper, but for their daily dedication and determination to making incremental findings that lead to the great ones. We need to redouble our early outreach efforts to build upon the successes of the Science Education and Health Partnership and other programs at UCSF that stimulate the interest of K-12 girls to think about science and health as careers.

Muryam Gourdet (UCSF PhD candidate and science advocate): I think there needs to be a different conversation about what the environment of science is like – what it means to be a "productive" scientist. The current way productivity is viewed is how much [time] you can shell out [in the lab] at one time. If you want to have a family, it’s very difficult to do that.

What advice would you give your younger self when you were starting out?

Desai: I wish I could tell myself to be more confident. I wish I was not so concerned about fitting in. [And I’d tell myself] to really seek out mentors in a more active way, instead of waiting for people to come to me. I would have avoided a lot of personal doubt if I’d found them earlier.

Ascher: The hard thing is for people to figure out what they really want. If you can get in touch with what you really want and what will interest you – not next week or next year, but in 10 years – you can make the big decisions.

Blackburn: When I was coming up through the earlier stages of my career, I was really afraid to ask for help. I thought that it would be seen as weakness and I’d be dismissed as somebody who wasn’t able to handle things. So, my advice is don't be afraid to find people to talk with.

Cisneros: Learn as much as you can before you get entrenched with your career and family. Earn an advanced degree. Learn a new language. Master a skill outside your professional education that will help you grow as a person.

Gourdet: Identify mentors early and use their help when it’s offered. Once I identified mentors who looked like me, things changed [for the better].

Loh: Really anything is possible if you find your passion. I think I always knew that.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?

Desai: When I was pregnant with my third child, someone said, "You will not be able to have a scientific career and three children."

Ko: I think women are often discouraged from doing something that’s "too hard." That’s terrible advice. You should never not do something because it’s too hard. I think when you’re challenged, it brings opportunities.

Desmond-Hellmann: The worst advice I got was that working long hours would have a positive outcome. That working all the time somehow correlated with excellence.

Ascher: The people who told me, "We don’t have any women who are doing this," [or] "That’s not the usual path [for a woman]." Also, the advice that you can’t have children late. I had my first child when I was 41, and I had another child after that.

Jencek: After I returned from maternity leave, and prior to my time at UCSF, a well-intentioned boss told me I just needed to compartmentalize: Think about work at work, and think about my family at home. I couldn’t do that. Work is part of life, and life is a part of work. Walling them off doesn’t benefit anyone. I took his advice for a brief time, but it failed for me, especially coming back from this huge life event. I had postpartum depression, and I couldn’t not think about my family. Even when you’re a working parent, you’re still a full-time parent. And when you’re parenting, you’re [thinking about] work – which is a good thing! Some of my most creative ideas I’ve had when I’m out on a run, giving the baby a bath, or taking my daughter to the park.

McLemore: I was told I would never have a successful career centering my work on reproductive justice, specifically abortion care provision. I was told that I needed to choose a path of work that would be amicable to federal funding if I were to advance and to be successful. That advice never sat well with me, and I’ve always cautioned learners to maintain scientific curiosity, and epistemological diversity in science. We can’t only study what’s fundable.