Women in biomedical research

Female Science Professor has a post up about this report on the status of women in the academic faculty workforce in a bunch of branches of science, including biology, chemistry, mathematics, civil engineering, electrical engineering and physics. The upshot of the report was that:

Although women are still underrepresented in the applicant pool for faculty positions in math, science, and engineering at major research universities, those who do apply are interviewed and hired at rates equal to or higher than those for men... ...women are underrepresented among those considered for tenure, but those who are considered receive tenure at the same or higher rates than men.

HOWEVER, and this is pretty interesting, those trends do not hold true for BIOLOGY. There were a number of other issues discussed in the article that apply to all the disciplines. Particularly that women are significantly less likely to be considered for tenure across all disciplines, which is problematic in itself. However, I want to focus your attention on the one that SUPPOSEDLY tends to attract more women. Despite the dogma that biology is less of a "hard science," and that there should be plenty of women in biology compared to those other STEM fields listed, the truth is that women in biological (and I think we can probably extrapolate/interpolate here biomedical) research end up with the short end of the stick, compared to men of equal rank, on a couple of key issues:

  • Staying in the pool: "while women received 45 percent of the Ph.D.s in biology awarded by research-intensive universities from 1999 to 2003, they accounted for only 26 percent of applicants to tenure-track positions at those schools." In other words, even though biology attracts more female students, it ends up losing proportionately more of them out of the pipeline.
  • Funding: "male faculty had significantly more funding than female faculty in biology; in other disciplines, the differences were not significant." As FSP suggested, maybe this is because the NIH has a bad history of unequal treatment by study sections vs. the NSF.

Both of these are pretty critical to building a bigger representation of women in the biological/biomedical sciences. You gotta feel like it is even worth APPLYING for the job in the first place, you gotta apply and get hired to one that is tenure-track, and once you're there you need to get funded to to make it past your first few years of annual review and be allowed to even submit a tenure packet. Apparently, if we can make it to that stage, then things aren't so skewed, since the report says that of those considered for tenure women are just as likely to get it as men.

So, biology, in other words, you still look like you suck pretty bad with respects to increasing the representation of women among your higher academic leadership ranks. Here you were thinking that you couldn't possibly look as bad as MATH or PHYSICS for goodness' sake, so you were fine and didn't need to worry about it. Well, guess what: you were wrong. You're now the main embarrassment on this front, and you need to get with the program.

4 thoughts on “Women in biomedical research

  1. The NIH/NSF thing is pretty interesting. I wonder if the picture would change if one broke down biology into NIH-funded and non-NIH-funded parts.

  2. Arlenna, to say that biology is now the “main embarrassment” is a bit melodramatic, no? Here is a link to the slide that tells that story, so your readers can judge for themselves. At least biology managed to get them in the door…. But that number caught my eye, too. Below is part of the comment that I left over at FSP’s – perhaps you have some insight to offer regarding my question?As for biology, the difference in the doctoral pool vs. those applying for tenure-track R1 positions surprised me. We see a similar trend in chemistry: a significant number of women in these fields are opting out of the whole tenure-track R1 jig after getting their PhD’s. Is it common knowledge that great career options exist in industry or elsewhere in these fields? And is it commonly acknowledged that you need a PhD for these jobs? I guess I’m wondering why we don’t see a similar trend in electrical engineering, where significant opportunities exist in industry, too.

  3. Well of course it's melodramatic, that's the point of the whole facetious last paragraph. 😛 That funding disparity thing especially disturbs me, though, to the point of me only putting my tongue part of the way in my cheek for that judgement.I'm really not sure what happens to the PhD pool in biology--there are probably a lot of biotech and pharma jobs available to people with a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences, similarly to chemistry, but I haven't looked at any numbers for if that is a significant bleed off route. I'll have to think about it and look around.

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