Advancing Women in Science: A Groundbreaking Model

By Nessa Rapoport and Emily Milder, Charles H. Revson Foundation

A nation’s most valuable resource is the brainpower of its citizens. Today, in the knowledge-based economies of the West and, increasingly, of the globe, no country can afford to neglect half its talent.

Among tenured researchers in the hard sciences, women continue to be severely underrepresented. Now Israel has developed a tailored intervention to address the disparity.

At the start of the new millennium, it was clear to the senior leadership of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel’s premier research center, that they had a problem. Only 13% of the Institute’s tenured faculty members were women, despite the fact that women had been granted 50% of Weizmann’s Ph.Ds.

The disparity was not limited to Weizmann. There was a significant gap between the number of men and women who were tenured research scientists in all of Israel.

What was responsible for the gap—and what could be done to redress it?

A careful process of study and interviews—led by the Institute’s president and senior women scientists—disclosed why so many women Ph.Ds were leaving the field: even the offer of a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship abroad (now a requirement for a tenure-track position in Israel) was not sufficient to outweigh the challenges of moving a partner and young family to a foreign country for two to five years.

Faced with the prospect of interrupting their partners’ careers and uprooting their children away from a network of supportive extended family, often on a single fellowship income, women were saying, “No, thanks.”

In response, the Weizmann Institute developed the Postdoctoral Program for Advancing Women in Science. Any woman scientist in Israel with a postdoctoral fellowship offer from abroad can apply for awards of between $15,000 and $25,000 a year for two years to supplement her fellowship’s salary. The award is competitive; there are between 50 and 60 applicants for about ten slots a year. This support serves as an incentive for women to ensure that professional necessity and ambition do not come at the expense of family stability.

In the first award cycle, from 2007 to 2009, eleven awards were distributed. Seven of those scientists are now in faculty positions at Israeli universities, one works in Israel’s high-tech industry, two are at American universities, and one is planning to return to Israel. Five women in the second cycle, from 2008 to 2010, are at Israeli universities, one is in high-tech, and the remaining five are completing their postdoctoral studies. Weizmann considers these results an unequivocal success.

Dr. Michal Rivlin-Etzion, a neurobiologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, offers a glimpse of the program’s impact:

“I arrived in Berkeley [in 2010] with my husband Yedidya and three little children: David (6), Naomi (4) and Miriam (2). Despite many efforts he made while we were still in Israel, Yedidya did not have a job when we arrived here, and I was paid a $36,700 salary as a postdoc. I lost track long ago of the number of times I faced Yedidya and asked him: ‘How did we think we could make it without the Revson Award?’ It is thanks to [this] award that we were able to send our kids for day care, and even buy them basic things like shoes!”

The ultimate goal of the program is to support 100 outstanding women scientists in their achieving tenured research positions over ten years. While this program was customized for Israeli women, who delay their university education in order to serve in Israel’s civilian army and tend to have their children at a younger age than their American peers, the issues it addresses are resonant for women scientists around the world.

The Charles H. Revson Foundation has supported fifteen awards since 2009, convinced that this innovative program could be adapted by any first-rank research institute committed to the retention of exceptional talent and to lowering the barriers that inhibit the advancement of women in science.

To learn more about the Postdoctoral Program for Advancing Women in Science, please visit the program’s page on the Weizmann Institute’s website, or contact Nessa Rapoport.

Nessa Rapoport and Emily Milder are the Senior Program Officer and Program Associate at the Charles H. Revson Foundation.


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