03/07/2011 08:00:00

Pamela Bjorkman Named Among Most Powerful Moms

When Working Mother magazine recently compiled its list of the Most Powerful Moms in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), it included Caltech's Pamela Bjorkman—a pioneer in the study of cell-surface recognition in the immune system, and a mother of two—among its 10 honorees.

"I'm honored to be included among the very accomplished other women in this list," says Bjorkman, who is Caltech's Max Delbruck Professor of Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

"I think it's great to publicize that women can combine a career in science with having children. The more we can communicate this message to young women, the more likely we will be to keep women in the pipeline for STEM careers."

Working Mother says that the women on its list—which also includes Xerox Chairman and CEO Ursula Burns and Padmasree Warrior, Cisco's Chief Technology Officer—are all "shattering the illusion that women can't succeed in STEM fields."

"For all of the bunk that women aren't interested in careers in math or science," writes Leah Bourne in the magazine's introduction to the profiles of its selectees, "the numbers of women entering STEM careers has been quietly growing."

In its profile of Bjorkman, the magazine points to her "many awards," including election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2001, the L'Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science North American Laureate for her discovery of how the immune system recognizes targets in 2006 and a National Institute of Health Director's Pioneer Award in 2010. 

Despite her feeling of pride at being recognized by the magazine—"I can't wait to tell my kids that I'm one of the most powerful moms," she laughed when told of her inclusion on the list—Bjorkman says there is still a way to go in terms of women's parity in such traditionally male-dominated fields.

Working Mother agrees, noting that US Bureau of Labor Statistics show women hold only 14 percent of engineering positions, and a quarter of mathematics positions.

"Women are not so much deliberately excluded as they are not thought about," Bjorkman told the magazine. "It's human nature for people to have friends like themselves, and when a question comes up of who to invite to a meeting or who should give a talk, you tend to think of your friends. If all your friends are white males, then you'll tend to invite a white male. It's the same thing for minorities in science. It's this vicious circle. It's almost impossible to create a normal atmosphere for women in science when they are in such low numbers."

Written by Lori Oliwenstein