Reimagining Career Paths, an Opportunity for Disruptive Change, and Supporting Reentry and Reintegration into Research

By Dr. Janine A. Clayton

Dr. Clayton headshot

In May, the ORWH hosted the 6th Annual Vivian W. Pinn Symposium. The symposium is a special event for ORWH because it is an opportunity to celebrate the pioneering efforts of the first full-time Director of ORWH, Dr. Pinn, and to present new research and science related to women’s health. 

Braided River: A New Metaphor for Career Paths in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine 

During my presentation, I mentioned the braided river metaphor to explain career paths in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM). Creeks, streams and tributaries all lead to the river. Similarly, people take many paths through school and weave careers around an assortment of circumstances, such as raising families, serving in the military, fulfilling caregiver responsibilities, and reengaging with formal education. The braided river metaphor is an update to the pipeline metaphor, considering that individuals move in and out of roles and positions in which they consult, start businesses, and hold jobs across disciplines and sectors. A rigid pipeline metaphor does not capture the real-world experiences of women working in STEMM today.

A braided river system illustrates a new, holistic STEMM workforce career development model. Illustration credit: Jennifer Matthews, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
A braided river system illustrates a new, holistic STEMM workforce career development model. 
Illustration credit: Jennifer Matthews, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Underneath the braided river are mentorship and inclusive support, with many tributaries that converge and diverge throughout the course of navigating a successful STEMM career. Intentionally working to structure career and professional development to embrace varied STEMM career pathways will allow us to form a more inclusive and supportive ecosystem. These diverse experiences bring new ideas that offer more creative, practical, and interdisciplinary solutions to meet emerging scientific and societal challenges. 

However, a new STEMM ecosystem requires systemic change, and we need to think in new and different ways to reimagine careers in STEMM. For example, educational and academic institutions may want to rethink tenure and graduation requirements. Also, we know interdisciplinary learning is fundamental to promoting connections across sectors in science to stimulate research and garner new insights. Finally, practical and supportive family leave policies are important so people can have on- and off-ramps throughout their STEMM careers. Adopting the new metaphor of a braided river as career paths will help us to better recruit and retain scientists and researchers from all backgrounds and identities through multiple pathways so they can thrive and join in to tackle pressing challenges. 

Symposium Keynote Speech

Reshma Jagsi, M.D., D.Phil., Director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan, delivered the keynote speech, titled “Promoting Equity for Women in Medicine: Seizing a Disruptive Opportunity.” Although the pandemic has caused enormous hardship for people across the world, Dr. Jagsi noted the pandemic has also presented a disruptive opportunity to create change in women’s careers.  

Much of Dr. Jagsi’s research has focused on gender differences in NIH-awarded research grants. For example, her research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women career development (K) award recipients earned less than K award recipients who were men. This gendered earning difference was mostly explained by medical specialty because women were less likely to occupy higher-paying, interventional specialties than men. In all aspects of society, it is important to support women in their pursuit of medical specialties that interest them, such as pediatrics or orthopedic surgery. 
Dr. Jagsi also discussed how, compared with men, women physician-researchers spend less time on professional activities. Research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine shows that women spend 8.5 more hours per week on domestic tasks than men. This means that men have an additional 8.5 hours each week to spend on tasks such as producing research. More domestic pressures can also lead to higher rates of burnout among women physicians.

Similar to the systemic change needed to fully realize the potential of the braided river career path model, Dr. Jagsi emphasized that to produce change, we must focus on fixing systems, not people. Change must take place at the institutional level, and some examples to promote change are: 

  • Mentorship and sponsorship programs
  • Evidence-based implicit bias training
  • Culture transformation
  • Transparent and consistent criteria-based evaluation, promotion, and compensation processes

Additionally, Dr. Jagsi noted that NIH has been a leader in developing and promoting work–life integration interventions to support the retention of women in biomedical science careers, such as the NIH initiative of inclusive excellence

In closing, Dr. Jagsi reflected that the pandemic has provided us with a disruptive opportunity for change, and she emphasized that we have reached an inflection point to act on lessons learned and transform work culture. We inhabit a momentous time in history, and while the pandemic has highlighted and amplified challenges, it has also provided an unconventional pathway to move from awareness to action. You can watch Dr. Jagsi’s full keynote presentation. 

NIH Supplements for Reentry and Reintegration into Careers

Bearing work-related pandemic changes and challenges in mind, NIH offers new research supplements to promote reentry and reintegration into health-related research careers. Eligibility for these supplement programs is based on the stipulation that the scientist has experienced a critical life event, such as childbirth, adoption, or having to take care of a family member. To date, NIH has invested millions of dollars to support new researchers returning to work after a major life event. In 2021, NIH spent nearly $3 million on continuity supplements to support these researchers. The most frequently reported qualifying life event that applicants included in their narratives was childbirth.  

NIH has published two notices of special interest (NOSI) announcing new administrative supplement programs to support early-career biomedical investigators.

NIH offers research grants to support full- or part-time research by women or men returning to the scientific workforce, including reintegration supplements for individuals to find supportive scientific environments after departure from an unsafe or discriminatory environment resulting from unlawful harassment. 

Supporting Women’s Careers Beyond the Pandemic

I greatly enjoyed this year’s symposium. We closed the event with remarks from Dr. Pinn herself. Dr. Pinn said she has witnessed how the pandemic has negatively affected the careers of women of color, and she stressed that equity and justice are needed now more than ever. You can listen to Dr. Pinn’s full remarks. Shifting to a braided river model to describe and understand career pathways in STEMM is one way to start to make systemic change. Although many challenges lie ahead as we move into new stages of the pandemic, we have the power to take negative life disruptions and turn them into positive changes for not only women in the biomedical research workforce but all women, which would in turn benefit everyone.