Valentina Greco Shares Her Advice for Promoting Gender Equity in STEMNews
NYSCF – Robertson Stem Cell Investigator Alumna Valentina Greco, PhD, knows that advancing women in science is imperative for ensuring that the field thrives, and sadly, there is still much inequity to overcome. Dr. Greco, the Carolyn Walch Slayman Professor of Genetics and Vice Chair of Diversity at Yale University, was a founding member of NYSCF’s Initiative on Women in Science and Engineering (IWISE) and has dedicated much of her career to ensuring that underrepresented voices in STEM are uplifted.
What has she learned over the years about speaking up, challenging norms, and creating environments that foster inclusivity? Read on to find out.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
“I come from Palermo, which is in the South of Italy,” said Dr. Greco. “I never thought I would leave until I was not accepted into a PhD program there, and I realized that I needed to do something else. A friend of mine, Dr. Eugenia Piddini, who is an incredible scientist, wanted to leave Palermo to go to EMBL, which is an international institution where they do incredible science in Germany. She helped me learn English for two weeks before the interview, and by some miracle I passed.”
“Then, I came to the United States for my postdoc together with my (future) husband, who was also a PhD student in the same program, to expand my training and views on science. In general, I felt unclear until quite late in my postdoc whether I would run a lab, and I felt systemic pressures that reward products (i.e. papers and grants) at the expense of the scientist’s wellbeing. As I started my own lab, I wanted to experiment around this cultural model and shift the focus first to the scientists, who are ultimately the drivers of the scientific discoveries, and think about how to establish and maintain a healthy culture in my laboratory. And 11 years later here I am with you all.”
What kinds of programs do you feel are useful for promoting gender equity?
Dr. Greco has partnered with colleagues to spearhead several programs aimed at providing women with the resources they need to succeed and rise up in the ranks of science.
“We have a problem unless we really create an umbrella for all people [to succeed]. So, with Dr. Caroline Hendry, Scientific Director of the Yale Genetics Department, we have started to ask for financial resources to invest in education for the entire department to dismantle the barriers that women encounter as well as proactively invest in women faculty themselves, as they typically receive less mentorship and sponsorship than their male colleagues.”
“I also serve on a committee called SWIM that oversees advancement of women faculty. This group has worked relentlessly over several decades to create spaces for all generations of women, including younger women like me, and to foster a culture of support and belonging for women by systematically dismantling barriers that we continue to wrestle with to this day.”
Dr. Greco also noted that change will never come to happen unless men will come behind to support and enact this shift in culture.
“Our professional world is one designed for men by men, and we have to have both groups in the conversation,” she remarked. “Conversations driven by organizational psychologists, for instance, have been very helpful for us. We sit in the same room, or let’s say Zoom room, and then we tackle conversations around gender either in alike groups (i.e. same gender) or across groups (with both genders together). It has led to a deeper understanding of the lived experiences of women faculty in the workplace.”
How can institutions begin to promote gender equity?
“I think [the commitment] has to come from the top,” said Dr. Greco. “There needs to be a serious commitment to say, for instance, that anytime we have a search committee for identifying people to hold positions of power, that those search committees should be as diverse as possible. The process should not repress voices, but make sure they are all heard. And that requires a deep investment and believing at one’s core that the loss of certain voices is negatively impacting the outcome.”
“And institutionally, if we ask these members of diverse membership to serve on different committee, we either have to engage them only in the most powerful and impactful tasks (i.e. hiring of the highest leadership positions) or we have to create a concrete and financial further support to offset the incredibly temporal burden we put on those individuals,” she added.
To foster a lasting, inclusive culture, Dr. Greco has found that constructive behaviors must also be incentivized and rewarded.
“The way to influence change is through a leadership that incentivizes and rewards the right behaviors. Change is more likely to occur when multiple people, rather than single individuals, are pushing for it, and when institutions pay attention and reward the behaviors we seek to emulate.”
It is also important that institutional leaders approach decisions about these topics thoughtfully and methodically.
“The biggest resource we have is time, and while I understand time is a scarcity, doing things in a rushed manner will lead to the same outcomes we have seen before, as we will more likely engage biases that always rank women as having less value than men.”
How can mentorship programs and evaluations help advance women’s careers?
Dr. Greco has dedicated a lot of time to constructing mentorship programs and resources.
“When I started in my role as a PI, my first postdoc was entering the job market, and I started to realize that there weren’t resources in place to aid in that transition,” recalls Dr. Greco. “Thus, in collaboration with many colleagues within and outside the department, we started to construct a training for independence program. From there, it catalyzed a mentorship program for junior members of labs and early-career PIs that could train scientists on how to give job talks and chalk talks, for instance, since talks are classic screening tools for grant awards and job interviews.”
“We also administered anonymous mentoring questionnaires that are analyzed by a third party and reported back to a PI, giving feedback on the culture of the lab through the lens of its structurally most vulnerable members.”
Dr. Greco is proud that these programs are now independently thriving, allowing her to focus her attention on other issues.
“And actually, I felt very proud that after some time, I could remove myself [from this program] to take this new position as Vice Chair of Diversity and see that the program was still carrying on as it should and doing great work. Attitudes toward mentoring have undergone a cultural shift – they are viewed much more positively now – and many PIs are coming up with their own ideas around it and making exciting progress.”
What advice do you have for mentors and mentees?
Dr. Greco has learned that as a mentor, listening and understanding mentees’ different backgrounds and points of view is important for supporting them, as well as for growing and pushing her own scientific understanding.
“As a mentor, I am aware that I don’t understand every single experience,” she remarked. “I cannot possibly understand other memberships that I am not a part of, especially those who are much less privileged than me. My aspiration is not to impose my own lived experiences on others, but rather try to figure out how to give them more agency and uplift their voice.”
For mentees, Dr. Greco recommends remembering that different people can serve as mentors for different aspects of your life and career.
“Both as a mentee and now, I felt that I was always looking for environments and people who made me feel safe, since when I felt safe my creative side felt empowered, and I realized that not everybody could help me with everything,” she reflected. “There were some people that were there for emotional support. Others could mentor me in specific areas of my research.”
Why should we be hopeful for the future of women in STEM?
“As I reflected on how my ideas have been praised as creative or novel, I came to realize that they are often emerging from my upbringing as a female. It seems to me that there are so many people that can make these contributions, or different ones, based on distinct lived experiences, but are not yet allowed to enter the system. And the beautiful thing about society is that it’s diverse – we’re raised differently and have different perspectives – it’s just that we are not valuing different membership (as they relate to gender, sexual orientation, ableism, etc.) the same. There is a wealth of talent waiting to be recognized by entire memberships that have been limited or completely excluded from entering professional spaces, including scientific academia. My hope is that we are already noticing that certain people who are not the minority in power (white, cis, able men) can bring different points of view, and there is only more to gain as we share our privilege and our positions in power with others instead.”
She also reiterated that the key to a brighter future is collaboration.
“For any cultural shifts that we want to accomplish, we have to do it as a group. Individuals are never the answer, yet this remains the main narrative and is what gets rewarded. Perpetuating the key contributions of groups rather than individuals throughout the community that we all belong to is the way that things are going to change.”
Cover image credit: Robert A. Lisak, Yale School of Medicine