Wednesday, July 9, 2014

PNAS: "Elite Male Faculty in the Life Sciences Employ Fewer Women"

On this blog, we're no strangers to talking about gender bias in science.  The evidence of that is here, here, here, and here, with more hopefully coming as soon as I have time to sit down to write a long post.  

However, because of that, something I just read caught my eye and I thought I'd share:  It is an interesting study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (also known as PNAS) that makes a fairly important conclusion about the state of gender in the academic life science workforce.  The article is freely available here,   It was written by a life science researcher and his significant other/partner, who is a computer scientist.  There's an interview with them at Science Careers here and a commentary about the article itself here.  Beyond being a stellar example of using existing internet data to create a meaningful analysis, it is quite telling about the state of gender equality in science.  I couldn't describe the paper any better than the abstract, which I've pasted below (after the jump break):

Copied from the PDF of the Sheltzer and Smith 2014 PNAS paper 

Now, as the authors point out, we can't tell whether their results are the product of bias from the male faculty/investigators or self-selection of female scientists wanted to avoid some of these prestigious labs.  

Bias on the part of the male faculty could have anything to do with plain misogyny or just wanting to avoid hiring woman postdocs who might want to (God forbid!) take some time off to have children.  I'm obviously being sarcastic about the "God forbid" part, but I've heard stories of faculty not wanting to give women the full legally-mandated family leave time they are entitled to after having a family.  That's the culture of self-sacrifice that is preached in many labs; there's an attitude of "How dare you want to take time off from research.  I'm paying you to be productive and we need to meet deadlines!"  

Obviously fathers are legally entitled to take family leave too, but I think the academic culture often pressures them into taking less leave than mothers do, partly because they don't have physically recover from the trauma of child birth itself.  It's really pretty terrible to think that academic culture can and sometimes does pressure workers (grad students and postdocs are often called trainees, but let's be honest, they are still workers; they often do the majority of experiments in academic labs that are the basis of the grants that pay the bills) against well-accepted legal and social norms like taking time off after childbirth, but it happens.  It doesn't always happen, and it probably isn't even the average, but the fact that it happens at all is somewhat tragic.   

Self-selection on the part of the women trainees could be simply due to poor working conditions in these high-powered labs, where everyone is under pressure to achieve at the highest levels in a scientific world where the competition is ever-increasing.  I doubt, though, that women (at least the ones I know in science) would be any more sensitive to this than men.  

It may have a lot to do with family pressures or child birth. It remains a largely-ignored "elephant in the room" (not just in science but in all career fields) that if a woman wants to have a family, she has to take more time off than the father.  It goes without saying that all of the burden of a pregnancy and child birth falls on the woman.  There's is a school of thought that women will self-select against high-powered labs (or other high powered jobs) more so than men due to the lack of family-friendly environment.    

However, if the results from this PNAS paper were truly the result of self-selection of women away from high-powered labs, why do the elite female faculty not have the same gender bias in their labs?  I've met a lot of high-powered female investigators; they can be just as driving and demanding as any male investigators.  This is clearly not just a case of women avoiding elite labs.  If they are self-selecting, it is because they are avoiding male-led elite labs.  Are the female faculty lab heads treating women trainees better than the male faculty?  That's just as scary as if the elite male faculty just aren't hiring women at the same rate as men.  

It seems to me that it will be really hard to scientifically analyze and conclude what the real cause of this bias is; the data in this paper are the sum of a lot of highly varied  and complicated individual cases.  Either way, though, this paper pretty clearly shows that there's still a big gender issue in academic biomedical science careers that should not be simply ignored or swept under the rug.        


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