Rochester Medicine

Profiles in Perseverance — B. Paige Lawrence, PhD

Aug. 31, 2019
Women Leaders Share Their Stories

This profile is part of the story Women Unlimited: Closing the Gender Gap in Medicine and Science.

Throughout her career, Paige Lawrence, a widely recognized expert on how environmental factors influence the development and function of the immune system, has encountered “many examples of where gender played a role.”

For example, when she started graduate school at Cornell University, there were no women’s bathrooms within the research spaces. She had to walk from the lab area to an entirely different floor—and different part of the building, where the secretaries were stationed—to use the restroom, the closest one available for women. She encountered a similar situation in her first faculty position at Washington State University, although this time she led an effort to turn the men’s room into a unisex space. She said that “having to walk far away to use a bathroom may sound trivial, but it is important. It sends a message that you are not welcome.”

On two occasions, when she was the only tenure-track woman in her department at Washington State, she had to deal with men who complimented her lab and then announced they were going to set up shop in her space. “It was very stressful,” she says. Lawrence talked with mentors before approaching the men separately to let them know she was bothered by what they’d said—and that the lab spaces were not available to them to take.

“They didn’t push back, but they didn’t apologize either,” she says. Those and other examples, Lawrence emphasizes, pre-date her 2006 arrival at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, where she has felt “incredibly well-supported.”

“When I went to my prior department chair to express a need for something, we generally worked together to meet that need,” she says. She also noted that this same collaborative spirit percolates throughout the school and University of Rochester Medical Center, making for “a more positive work environment. While we still have areas to improve upon, I love working here.”

With support both at work and from her partner at home, Lawrence has navigated the many pressures of having a career and family. She finds it heartbreaking that women in their 20s continue to approach her with questions about how they can have both. She prefers the term “work/life integration” over “work/life balance,” because she believes it better conveys that being both a professional and caretaker is possible.

“I feel like the word ‘balance’ creates this idea there’s some attainable Buddha-like state you’re going to get to, and I’ve never achieved that state,” she says. “A lot of times I’ve thought I was a complete failure because I couldn’t achieve that state. I finally realized that, overall, I can contribute meaningfully to both my family and science without having to make binary choices.”