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Is 'Leaning In' The Only Formula For Women's Success In Science?

Caltech biochemical engineer Frances Arnold was awarded a National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Obama in 2013. (Reuters/Landov)

Don't wait to be invited or encouraged to make a career in science, engineering or technology, Frances Arnold advises the young women she teaches at the California Institute of Technology. If you're a scientist, she says, you should know how to solve a problem.

"Bemoaning your fate is not going to solve the problem," she says. "One has to move forward."

An award-winning biochemical engineer, and professor and researcher at Caltech for 28 years, Arnold grew up in Pittsburgh and studied engineering at Princeton University only a few years after the college began admitting women. Her father helped build one of the world's first commercial nuclear reactors; when Arnold got her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley she, too, had big ambitions from the start.

This story is part of NPR's series The Changing Lives of Women.

"I wanted to rewrite the code of life, to make new molecular machines that would solve human problems," she says. So she moved to Caltech, a small, but well-funded research institute, where she now heads the biotechnology center and says anything is possible.

Sure, she faced roadblocks along the way.

"I'm sure that there are people who are skeptical that a woman can do this job as well as a man," Arnold says, adding, "I am blissfully unaware of such people — and have been gifted with the ability to ignore them completely." She advises other women in fields dominated by men to do the same.

Arnold's female students at Caltech say she's a god. But they don't all agree with her "lean-in" philosophy.

Nikki Peck is getting a Ph.D. in bioengineering. Her parents are both science teachers. She spent her weekends growing up going to science museums and went on to Harvey Mudd College, which emphasizes science, engineering and math as well as liberal arts.

But at Caltech there was one guy she worked with who acted like women were inferior, Peck says, and her self-esteem took a hit. Still, the whole lean-in response that Arnold advises is not her style.

"I consider myself an introvert," Peck says. "I have a hard time just, like, talking to people. It's hard for me to get up the initiative to just ... 'Lean in!' or to 'Just do it!' "

"I don't know," Peck says. "That attitude — I think it works really well for a certain type of woman. But I don't think it works for every woman."

So Peck figures she might not be the next big-shot academic. Instead, she's taking a year off from her graduate work to go work for Calico, Google's new life-extension company. She says she's a little worried about working near a city with the nickname Man Jose, where women get good tech jobs but don't stay in them.

Peck's story isn't that unusual. The pipeline of young people heading into jobs in science, technology, engineering and math is starting to widen, to diversify — more women than in decades past are getting into STEM and staying there through college, grad school and even that first job.

But then they opt out.

Peck says she thinks it's because we still haven't figured out how women can work these high-power jobs and have families. It's a conversation she hoped to have at a recent cupcake social for Women in Chemistry at Caltech.

Peck and her friends showed up at the event with their male colleagues, "but [other attendees] were sort of like, 'What are you doing here?' And then, of course, our male co-workers felt like they weren't allowed there, so they left," she says. "And so, I don't know, on the one hand, that's how we feel sometimes. But still, I don't think the way you help out women is by pushing down men."

These days Caltech is about 70 percent men to 30 percent women, with the number of women on the upswing.

But even with the push for more diversity, some students still feel singled out — and not in a good way.

Earlier this month, Caltech hosted a fly-in for high school seniors from groups that admissions officers say have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields.

You can imagine the scene, says Moraa Marwanga, a student in the International Baccalaureate program at her high school in Rockville, Md., who attended the event.

"I am one of maybe three black girls there," Marwanga recalls, "and one of maybe 10 black people in general. ... The college application process people are, like, 'Oh you're just going to get in everywhere. You're black and you're female and you like math.' ... It's frustrating," she says.

So don't let it get to you, her friend Angela Umeh from Dallas advises her. It'll be harder if you let it get to you.

Maybe that's the best advice for women now, they say: Instead of "Lean In," you might call that approach to obstacles, whatever they are, "Lean To The Side, And Let It Pass By."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The fastest-growing occupations in coming years will likely be in STEM - science, technology, engineering and math. In many STEM fields, women hold far fewer positions than men. We're going to explore why that is as part of our series "The Changing Lives Of Women." NPR's Kelly McEvers visited the California Institute of Technology where she met some female scientists.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: If you want to talk about women in science, you have to talk to Frances Arnold. She's basically one of the most highly-decorated scientists in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCES ARNOLD: The ability to synthesize DNA is really there for us.

MCEVERS: Arnold heads the Bioengineering Center at Caltech, where she's also been a professor for 28 years. This class is called Intro to Biological Design.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARNOLD: You are now at the beginning of yet another revolution where we can synthesize any DNA we want.

MCEVERS: Arnold's father built one of the world's first commercial, nuclear reactors. Arnold grew up in Pittsburgh then studied engineering at Princeton which at the time had only been admitting women for a few years. She got a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at UC, Berkeley.

ARNOLD: I wanted to rewrite the code of life - to make new molecular machines that would solve human problems.

MCEVERS: So she came to Caltech, a small but well-funded research institute where she says anything is possible. Yeah. There were roadblocks along the way.

ARNOLD: I'm sure that there are people who are skeptical that a woman can do this job as well as a man. I am blissfully unaware of such people and have been gifted with the ability to ignore them completely.

MCEVERS: When we talk about why there aren't more women in science, one argument is that women might choose to major in science but aren't encouraged to continue up the academic ladder. Arnold totally disagrees. She admits she was lucky to have supportive parents and the money to go to college, but she also says women shouldn't wait for encouragement. If your scientist she says, you should know how to solve a problem.

ARNOLD: Bemoaning your fate is not going to solve the problem. One has to move forward.

MCEVERS: Just go and do it. That's her philosophy, you know, that whole lean in thing. To the female students at Caltech, Frances Arnold is a god, but they don't all agree with her philosophy. Nikki Peck is getting a Ph.D. in Bioengineering. Her parents are both science teachers. She went to Harvey Mudd College, a STEM school and a liberal arts school - so not so many roadblocks. At Caltech, there was one guy who acted like women were inferior and that hurt Peck's self-esteem. Still, the whole lean in thing - not her style.

NIKKI PECK: For me, like - I don't know - I consider myself an introvert. I have a hard time just like talking to people. You know, it's hard for me to get up sort of the initiative to, you know, lean in or just do it. That's kind of hard for me. So - I don't know. That attitude - I think it works really well for a certain type of woman but I don't think it works for everyone.

MCEVERS: So Peck figures she might not be the next big shot academic. Instead, she's taking a year off to go work for Google's new life extension company. She says she's a little worried about working near a city with the nickname of man Jose, where women get good tech jobs but don't stay in them. That's the deal these days. The pipeline is starting to widen. More women are getting into STEM and staying in STEM through undergrad, grad school and even that first job, but then they opt out. Peck says that's because we still haven't figured out how women can work these high-powered job and have families. It's a conversation she hoped to have at a recent cupcake social for Women in Chemistry at Caltech. Peck and her friends showed up with their male colleagues -

PECK: but they were sort of like what are you doing here? (Laughter) And then of course, our male coworkers felt like they weren't allowed there so they left. And I don't know - on the one hand, I guess that's how we feel sometimes. (Laughter) But it's still - like I don't think that the way you help out women is by pushing down men.

MCEVERS: These days, Caltech is about 70-30, men to women, which means the pipeline is widening. More women are getting into these schools. But that can also make people point fingers - say things like well you're just here because you're a - fill in the blank. Earlier this month, Caltech hosted a fly in for high school seniors from groups who've been, quote, "historically underrepresented in STEM fields." Moraa Marwanga came from the international baccalaureate program at her high school in Rockville, Maryland.

MORAA MARWANGA: Like, I'm 1 of maybe 3 black girls there and 1 of maybe 10 black people in general. With the college application process, people are like oh, you're just going to get in everywhere. You're black, and you're female, and you like math. So it's frustrating.

MCEVERS: So don't let it get to you her friend Angela Umeh from Dallas tells her. It'll be harder if you let it get to you. Maybe that's how it should be for women now they say. Call it lean to the side, and let it pass by. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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