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Spirit Lecturer Urges Women to Keep Striving

By Eddy Ball
April 2007

Alice Huang
2007 Spirit Lecturer Alice Huang. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In his opening remarks, Wilson emphasized the Institute's commitment to workplace parity for women. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

When she introduced her friend of almost twenty years, Johnson-Thompson praised Huang for her work as a mentor and role model for young women. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Darlene Dixon, D.V.M., and Charle League
Darlene Dixon, D.V.M., and Charle League enjoyed one of the speaker's lighter anecdotes. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Vallant posing with Huang
Vallant posed with Huang and the 2007 Spirit Lecture Award. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The NIEHS Diversity Council welcomed to the podium the sixth speaker in its series of annual Spirit Lectures on March 20 in Rodbell Auditorium. The 2007 Spirit Lecture was delivered by Alice Huang, Ph.D., a noted scientist, educator and activist. In the course of a talk titled "Beyond the Numbers: Where Are We Going?" Huang challenged her audience to continue to be vigilant about the rights of women and minorities and to strive for true equality.

NIEHS Deputy Director Sam Wilson, M.D., welcomed the audience to this year's Spirit Lecture. Education and Biomedical Research Development Director Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D., introduced her long-time friend and associate. Following the lecture, Spirit Lecture Committee Chairperson Molly Vallant, Ph.D., presented Huang with the 2007 Spirit Lecture Award.

Huang is currently senior councilor for External Relations and faculty associate in Biology at the California Institute of Technology. The Johns Hopkins-educated virologist has received a long list of honors for her scientific and educational contributions. She holds several chairs and sits on the boards of major organizations, including the Foundation for Microbiology and the Food and Drug Administration Advisory Committee on Vaccines and Related Biological Products.

Huang opened her talk with an account of her personal experiences. Born and reared during her early years in China, after she came to America, Huang experienced not only the challenge of being a woman in the male-dominated world of science during the 1960s and 1970s, but also the sense of being an outsider in a strange new place who "wanted very much to blend in."

Those experiences affected how Huang tackled the professional roles she has played - as a scientist, educator and leader. She credits one of her many roles, as a dog owner and lover, with affecting how she has fulfilled these roles. "What they [my dogs] have taught me is something important as well," she said. "In my interactions with people, with friends and with colleagues, in addition to being professional, loyalty, love and respect for the other individual are important."

Huang turned to statistics to show how far women have come and how much there is still to do. Although the situation is improving for women and minorities, the numbers make it clear that many obstacles remain. Disparity in income has decreased, and a greater percentage of women are now getting doctorates in science and making careers in the health sciences and the world of academia.

However, women remain at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to representation at the higher levels of business, government and education. Women make up only 9.3 percent of full professors at Harvard Medical School and other prestigious institutions. In the world of business, they constitute a mere 3.3 percent of top earners, and only two Fortune 500 corporations employ a woman as chief executive officer.

"There are still too few women and minorities in the pipeline," she explained, "... [and] woman are stalled at the bottom of many professions." Women and minorities still face myths in the workplace, myths that they are not as capable or competitive or ambitious. Many employers still assume that women are limited by family responsibilities and that efforts to increase diversity will lower the standards of performance.

Women and minorities too often internalize the myths and begin to fulfill the misconceived expectations of others. They also tire of the struggle for parity. "What will often cause complacency," Huang said, "is the feeling that there's no problem any longer. Yes, it's better than 30 years ago, but there are still problems left."

Rather than accepting casual remarks that reinforce the myths, women should be intolerant of the attitudes that marginalize their contributions. For its part, society should make sure that the bar for women and minorities is not set higher to exclude these groups. Businesses, universities and other organizations should also promote diversity in the workplace. Like the natural world she has studied so carefully, according to Huang, society and the workplace can benefit from diversity.

Each year since 2002, the NIEHS Spirit Lecture Series has recognized outstanding women who have achieved a balance between the competing aspects of work and family in their lives, thereby becoming better scientists and better members of their families and communities. The series is sponsored by the NIEHS Diversity Council.

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