Fixing the Leaky Pipeline

Why aren't there many women in the top spots in academia?

By Phoebe Leboy | January 1, 2008

Back in 2006, I took a quick survey of the basic science departments in medical schools to see how women were doing in science. Close to half of the top 10 National Institutes of Health-funded academic health centers had no women among their junior tenure-track faculty in their biochemistry and cell biology departments. Looking at such statistics, a young woman might get the impression that her shot at the faculty positions at these schools would be difficult, if not out of reach. When I surveyed the schools, Harvard Medical School had 23 tenure-track faculty members in its cell biology and biochemistry/ molecular pharmacology departments, but none were women (since then, two women have joined the ranks). Why are so few women making it onto the tenure ladder at major medical schools?

These top institutions represent an extreme example of a general problem. For example, the NIH reports that only 20% of their senior scientists are women. Postdoctoral award data show that the biomedical pipeline is filled with good candidates, but disproportionately few get into the tenure track stream at major research institutions. Clearly some major leaks along the way are causing only a trickle of women to make it to the top.

The postdoc to tenure track leak

One of the most significant leaks in the pipeline occurs during the postdoc to tenure-track transition (EMBO Reports, 8:977-81, 2007). At the University of Pennsylvania, where I was on the faculty for 42 years, the basic science departments in the medical school had 18 women who were tenure-track assistant professors in 1999. By 2007 the number had dropped to four. In the past five years, only one woman has been hired as a tenure-track assistant professor in the basic science departments of Penn's medical school.

One widely acknowledged reason for the dearth of women in tenure-track assistant professor positions is that these high pressure jobs coincide with a woman's last best chance for children. Caring for a newborn child is a stress on both men and women, but according to a recent survey of NIH postdocs, women are more likely to make career concessions than men.

For starters 36% of men, compared to only 8% of women, have spouses who stay at home, giving men - as a group - an advantage in the workplace. When both partners work, the female cohort was still less likely to receive support at home. 31% of female respondents said they would make concessions for their husband's career, while only 21% of male respondents said they would. And 30% of men expected their wives to make concessions whereas only 15% of women had that expectation.

Recommendations: Follow the lead of some high-prestige research universities that have provided released time from teaching and administrative responsibilities for researchers who are primary caregivers - male and female. Unlike undergraduate departments, most basic science departments in medical schools have more faculty than are required for teaching their students. The institution also stands to gain, because grant funding is more apt to be maintained when junior faculty maintain momentum in research and publications.

This approach has been successful at the University of California, Berkeley, where 45% of tenure-track women take advantage of "reduced duties" policies.

When filling a faculty position, publicize the fact that your institution has family-friendly policies, and then actively recruit women rather than waiting for them to apply.

The assistant professor to tenure leak

Rearing children during the most demanding times in a scientist's career is just one of the issues women face. Many academic women don't have children. According to a UC, Berkeley-based survey of nearly 9,000 tenure track scientists across UC campuses, 48% of tenure track women did not have children. Clearly there are factors other than feelings of familial obligation that keep women from advancing in science.

Figure 2 reproduces NIH data showing that the proportion of K-series grants given to women has been steadily increasing over the years, and is now consistent with the proportion of women emerging from biomedical postdocs. Study section scores for women's R01 grant applications are now as high as or higher than men's. If women do make it to the stage of independent NIH-funded researcher, and are competing on the same level as men, then why do they comprise only 20% of senior faculty at prestigious medical schools?

Looking at statistics, a young woman might get the impression that her shot at the faculty positions at these schools would be difficult, if not out of reach.

While women have relatively high success rates for their first R01 applications, the story changes over the long run (see graph on p. 70). On their second, or renewal grants, women consistently have lower success rates than men. Part of the reason is that grant reviewers, like tenure committees, look at the number of publications as a major criterion of excellence. As one candid department chair explained it to a terminated assistant professor I know: "Quality is no substitute for quantity."

Women scientists, on average, do produce fewer publications than men (EMBO reports, 8:982-7, 2007). Why is that? Several answers have been suggested by the National Academies of Science 2007 report, "Beyond Bias and Barriers." One reason suggested in the report is that women, on average, devote more time to teaching and mentoring than men. Another is that women value advising students while men give greater emphasis to competition. The NAS report also suggests another possibility that has been largely ignored to date: that women have less access to the support systems and resources that increase faculty productivity.

In the world of biomedical research, good graduate students and postdocs are the hands and minds that can convert an excellent scientist into a highly productive scientist. They will drive the output of papers, contribute ideas and data leading to new research avenues, and markedly increase the overall productivity of the lab.

Successful graduate students and postdocs are savvy about what it takes to succeed in today's world of science. Both male and female graduate students perceive young women scientists as having less prestige, less clout, fewer contacts and less funding. The result is that women assistant professors are less likely to attract high quality graduate students and postdocs.

As far as money is concerned, those trainees would be right. As Charlotte Schubert reported in Nature Medicine (11:1129, 2005), for every funding dollar allocated to a research grant of a male principal investigator (PI), the average grant of a female PI provides 80 cents. This is, in part, because women are less likely to be PIs on NIH grants with larger dollar caps. Center grants with big budgets are consuming an increasing portion of the NIH budget, but less than 17% of center grants are awarded to women, compared to 24.5% of R awards (R01, R03, R21). As more and more funding dollars are shifted to large multi-investigator projects, the ability of women to gain parity in dollars per grant will no doubt decline further.

What's keeping search and award committees from thinking of the many highly-qualified female candidates?

The data showing that women receive less money per grant and publish fewer papers contribute to the perception that young female scientists have less status and influence. The bottom line is a vicious cycle: less productivity yields fewer good students and postdocs, which yields less productivity. With less support at home, and less support in the lab, women have to work much harder to compete on the same playing field as men.

Recommendations: Organize high visibility activities featuring the accomplishments of junior women faculty to increase their status with graduate students. Seek out women faculty to be PIs on multi-investigator grants, center grants, and core facilities grants to boost parity. Then evaluate scientists for promotion based on the quality of research they produce - using citation rates, for example - rather than the number of publications and how much income they bring in. Some high prestige institutions assess the quality of their scientists' work by asking for, and reading, the 4-5 papers that the researchers identify as their most seminal work.

The awards leak

Once all of these challenges have reduced the availability pool, there is yet another considerable issue to overcome: the perception of excellence. The recent NAS report describes studies showing how the stereotype that women scientists are less prestigious is still prevalent.

What's keeping search and award committees from thinking of the many highly-qualified female candidates? Why do so few female scientists get awards like a Lasker or the Nobel for their contributions to science? The subtle bias described in the NAS report suggests that women do not fit the image both men and women have of prestige and leadership.

According to the Recognition of the Achievements of Women In Science, Medicine, and Engineering (RAISE) project's website, only 8.6% of Lasker Awards since 1991 have gone to female scientists. The RAISE project also reports that of the 474 awards they've counted, a full 33% have never gone to women.

Recommendations: I looked at the invited speakers at the Keystone symposia - one of the most well-regarded set of conferences in the life sciences - and tallied the number of invited speakers across 32 meetings encompassing seven fields. When a woman was present on the search committee the percentage of speakers who were women was 32%, while without any women among the organizers the percentage dropped to 25%, a statistically significant difference. Make sure all search committees for faculty positions as well as conferences contain a critical mass of women. Actively recruit women for leadership roles. Reconsider your personal definition of a driven and impressive scientist.

These are not the only solutions, but they're a start. Until academic science begins to address why top tier institutions have so few women among their biomedical faculty, young women are likely to find their prospects unsatisfactory and choose other options.

Phoebe Leboy is a professor of biochemistry emerita at the University of Pennsylvania, and the current president of the Association for Women in Science.


January 10, 2008

I've heard women at research I institutions complain that while their institution MAY have family leave policies, their grants do not. No extra time given or funds given to keep a lab going while a female PI cares for a new child or infant. Let's also remember that women are disproportionately caregivers for elderly parents or disabled sibs, so family leave should be flexible. NIH and NSF should see what they can do to make their funding mechanisms more family friendly.

anonymous poster

Posts: 199

January 10, 2008

1. It is my observation that women in general are less likely to take credit for what isn't theirs, although it does happen. Bluntly put, this is rampant in science in the US. \n\n2. Women, I think, are less combative and tend to be more comfortable confirming results. I can think of two colleagues right now who built their careers this way. One is a department chair. I recently asked why she hadn't pursued something one of her graduate students had found that was quite extraordinary. The reason was she didn't want the fight. So, she struggled on with another apple polishing paper, even though it was looking questionable. It's safer to confirm. If she couldn't confirm, she was not going to publish. She can go to conferences, present, and get cheers and have a man who will stand up and fight for her if someone gets nasty.\n\n3. Women don't develop good-old-boy connections the way men do. It is, I think, easier for women to meet each other and talk, but harder for us to cooperate with each other. This is particularly true when cooperating might require something unethical to be done. Bluntly, men do this well. I used to be outraged at this aspect of science. Now I'm just numb. I hate to say it, but just like men run the Mafia, exactly the same thing is true for men running science's version of organized unethical activity. \n\nI'll cite an example of a woman's version of unethical activity: A male post-doc has trouble with an experiment and submits faked data for a paper. A female graduate student reports to her absolute proof the data could not be real. The female professor likes him, feels sorry for him because he's got family and needs money, and lets him publish under her name. He goes on to get a professorship. Now he has her over a barrel and once in a while uses it. Years later the grad student gets her PhD and files a report with DOI on the incident - because a man helped the female doctorate to have the courage to do so. \n\n4. Women are much more likely to have their best ideas stolen. I think most women in science have experienced this. I know a woman who discovered aspects of prostagladin activity as a graduate student before anyone else. Men have it happen, but they are better at fighting back and then, sadly, they learn to play the same game. Women don?t play that game very often, even after it happens to them. We want to follow the proper rules, not violate ethical principles. \n\n5. Because of the competition in science for grants, all of the above mean that women are less likely to get the big money. Our fate is like that of the many male counterparts who are absolutely honest, and ?ethical to a fault? never taking credit for anything they shouldn?t, and never collaborating with any man who does. I know that many of my male colleagues are this way. And they have the same problems women do. They also, are typically not as good at fighting back. So the result is the system skews toward those who aren?t so squeaky clean. We women are pretty squeaky clean. \n\nFor all of the above reasons, women drop out of science before even graduating and after graduating with a PhD. The very clever and observant woman above in item 4 dropped out of research into admin jobs she could get and is now bitter and drinks too much and her husband left her. The female graduate student who reported the malfeasance wouldn't make a report until after she dropped out of science altogether because she was so certain of retaliation. And now, I have checked the "Your name will not be visible" box to post anonymously because I don't want retaliation either. \n\nA system of unprovoked audits, like the IRS does with taxes, instituted to root out intellectual theft, improper attribution of credit and falsified data, would benefit women the most. Requirements for all published articles to have precise, sworn attributions of credit for all aspects, with penalties that remove malefactors from holding a university position ever again would result in a long term balancing of women in science. I'm sorry to say it, but we just aren't as good at free for all politics where anything goes. We women are just not as good at "the game".

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

January 10, 2008

The article notes that more women are invited to give seminars when women serve on search committees. It's been my experience that in order to have women represented on these and other committees, on average women faculty are asked to devote disproportionately more time to committee work than men faculty.

Sami Sozuer

Posts: 1

January 10, 2008

It's not just women who are ripped off of credit.\nAs a foreign national who was funded through TA/RA stipends to get his PhD in physics here in the US,\nI have often experienced unabashed, unapologetic credit-robbery by my supervisors. One incident, that I still remember like yesterday, because it's just tattooed in my head since that day, goes like the following: \n\nMy supervisor was frequently asking for the results of calculations, graphs etc, of the stuff I had been doing for my thesis. One day he showed me the printed proceedings of a major conference. There was an abstract of the work I had been doing for over a year, with HIS name as the sole author, and my name was nowhere to be found. Shocked, I asked him why he didn't put my name on the conference paper. He looked at me, took a pencil, and wrote my name beside his, and said "There, happy now?"\n\nThis is a true story.\n

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

January 11, 2008

Not all women scientists are sqeaky clean, in my experience (as a women scientist) I know of both men and women scientists who I would say are equally ruthless, and others who are equally honest and supportive of their staff. In my opinion, the main obstacle to women's advancement is still that of being the main carer, both of either young, elderly or disabled family members. It is often the same women who look after both the young and the elderly. Not only does looking after children co-incide with the time when a career requires maxmimum development, looking after elderly relatives co-incides with the time when a women may be able to rebuild an interupted career. Incidentally, in my experience the fellow scientists who understand this the least are the career women scientists without children.

anonymous poster

Posts: 11

January 11, 2008

Since white women make up the overwhelming majority of women in science, in the U.S., this article implicitly cites the problem of under-representation of white women in sciences. While the statistics still support this state, based on my knowledge, they still have it much better than - and certainly no worse - than Blacks, Latinos, or Asians. Proportionally there are far more white women in top posts than both genders of any ethnic minority in the U.S. and the trend is growing - albeit slowly. That's a glaringly obvious fact.\n\nAlso, as at least two commentators pointed out, unethical exploitations of women and minority is still a common practice by the white males in sciences, as in any other profession, in the U.S. More often than not, women and minority do the bulk of research and grunt works to subsidize the white male private investigators and perpetuate the false image that it is the latter who make the critical research contribution and, therefore, deserve the most and best credits and rewards. Simply put, exploitations based on racism or sexism is still alive and kicking well in this supposedly greatest country of colorblindness and equal opportunity for all, in the world.

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

January 11, 2008

I have served on grant proposal review committees for several agencies. On separate occasions during proposal discussions I have had the opportunity to interject that I knew the PI and that although the proposal didn't indicate that the PI had thought of a possible confounder(s) in the experimental design, the PI was a good scientist, in a good lab with good students and would produce good results. Only when the PI was male did a comment result in a score worthy of funding. In the case of female PIs it was brought up that personal information about the PIs is not to be considered in the evaluation.\n\nIn several other cases it has quickly become apparent that women who argue for funding for a female PI over a male PI when the proposals are equal are ignored and since they are always outnumbered it is the male PI that gets the funding.\n\nResearch proposal funding is a human endeavor but the funding officer has a huge role in the bias that goes into the awards. Perhaps the officers need gender bias training and a checklist to remind them of the subtleties and how they can actively counteract them. Then the funding agency needs to actively audit the review discussions and the results.\n\nIf female faculty can gain ground in equality of funding they will increase their numbers in top spots in academia.

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

January 11, 2008

The facts indicate that female scientists do not get funded the same as male scientists. Those effects filter down to their students so that even if a female scientist can attract a really good student that student has a decreased chance of getting student or post-doctoral awards because their mentor is female. That means that new students will choose other labs that appear more successful. A lack of students contributes to the problems of achieving competitiveness or remaining competitive.\n\nDepartmental support for putting the best students in the labs of female faculty and for supporting funding applications by female faculty and the students of female faculty would help eliminate this particular leak.

anonymous poster

Posts: 19

January 16, 2008

I agree wholeheartedly with the posted comments on women not being good fighting back. We have to learn! We are also not as supportive of one another as we should be. My friends and I, at many different institutions,have sadly identified that in the grab to succeed we often see women standing in the way of, or not helping, other women, because they perceive lack of room at the top. We need to support each other!\n\nAs a post-doc, my adviser gave the grants and papers to the males to review, while we women post-docs were kept busy at the bench, troubleshooting because often we were given the most recalcitrant projects. So, often, we don't get the best experience and mentoring. You are also not introduced as often to the bigwigs in the area even though many of us are just as smart or smarter than the male post-docs.\n\nSo help me, I was personally told, "Why are you so worried about your career? You are just going to go home and have babies!". Many men see an investment in developing a woman as a time-consuming risk that may not pay off as it will with a man.\n\nAn increasingly unwelcome development I have noticed with the advancement of "political correctness" is that men are more reluctant than ever to invite female researchers to join them after the meetings (to dinner, and especially to after-dinner socializing which involves drinking) because heaven help them if they make some slip of the toungue while uder the influence (they fear sexual harassment charges)especially if the woman scientist is an attractive (even if not necessarily young)female. They want to bond, do their boy-networking, and you are an obstacle to that. So, you are not privy to the inside business. I can't tell you the amount of time that myself and other women scientists I know end up eating dinner alone. Thus, without the inside scoop, you are put at a disadvantage with papers and for obtaining grants.\n\nMore women need to comment on this post - you all have ideas; get creative, and come forward! Then, we have to collectively figure out how to balance the system towards more equity for women scientists.