Am I Sexist?

Here's how The Scientist will take action to support women in science.

By | January 1, 2008

It's always a shock to realize that you're in the wrong. As this issue was going to press, I found myself tut-tutting at the data that Phoebe Leboy presents elsewhere in this issue on the number of women scientists in the more senior positions at academic institutions. At the end of 2006, Harvard Medical School had no women among 23 tenure-track faculty in cell biology and biochemistry/ molecular pharmacology. Two have joined since then, but that's still a scandalous figure. The number of female assistant professors at the University of Pennsylvania has dropped from 18 to four in the last eight years? Shocking! Why don't the crusty old beggars that run research play fair?

Then I became uneasy: What is my own record in recognizing senior female researchers? The answer is, very poor. At The Scientist one of the ways of acknowledging leadership in the life sciences is to invite leaders to serve on our Editorial Advisory Board. A quick glance at page 11 will show you that it's an outstanding group of people. But you'll also see that it's light on women members: There are precisely three, out of 22. At 14%, I'm in Harvard Medical School territory. That's hardly the ideal position from which to criticize the NIH (my original intention), which reaches the giddy heights of 20% women among its senior scientists.

Umpteen complexities that don't exist in selecting an advisory board factor into the hiring of senior scientists, but perhaps looking at how we at The Scientist select our advisory group will shed some light on the wider problems of recognition for women in science.

There are two main criteria for our board members. First, they must be at the peak of their chosen profession. Roughly half are prominent researchers, while the others are notable leaders in some aspect of the business of science. Second, they should have some inclination towards the mission of The Scientist, which is to provide life sciences professionals with useful, entertaining, and accurate coverage of their world.

In practice, deputy editor Ivan Oransky and I identify candidates through articles they've written. Or, better, we meet scientists at talks. Neither of us considers ourselves sexist, and we don't believe that gender is a factor in excelling in research or business. We've editorialized in support of women in academia.1

So why the paucity of women on our board? A 2005 article in Science identified four cultural and structural impediments to women in science.2 Three of the four - the low number of women trained, hostility from colleagues, and balancing family and work - do not apply in our case. I have to conclude that I fall into the fourth category: "People who are committed to egalitarian principles and believe that they are not biased may nevertheless unconsciously or inadvertently behave in discriminatory ways." The article describes programs in which "faculty members are encouraged to recruit women by deliberate action to overcome unconscious biases and to cultivate professional relationships with promising women scholars at professional meetings."

Laura L. Mays Hoopes provides other, more pointed suggestions in "Help women stay in science," which prompted some lively exchanges on our Web site. Of course, not everyone agrees that there's a problem: "The last time I checked, science was about just that, science, and not what gender you are," wrote one commenter. "If you do good science, can plan and execute the experiment well, draw the right conclusions, and ask the right questions, no one cares what you look like." That's just wrong. Just because there isn't a conscious bias doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, as my example illustrates.

The solution in my case is clear: Direct action. Most of the leaders we will invite to join the board in the near future will be women, with the aim of having women comprise a minimum of one-third of the members by the end of this year.

If this seems like affirmative action, I make no apologies for it. In cases where there the path to a just goal is littered with complexities that will cause endless delay, setting quotas is often the best way of cutting through the clutter. I'd like to see institutions set strict ratios on the numbers of senior female scientists that they must employ too - the sooner the better.


1. R. Gallagher, I. Oransky. "Women, science, and academia: a three-point plan," The Scientist, 19(7):6, April 11, 2005. 2. J. Handelsman et al., "More women in science," Science, 309:1190-1, 2005.


Avatar of: Chrissen Gemmill

Chrissen Gemmill

Posts: 1

January 10, 2008

Richard I appreciate your honesty and for taking positive steps to help level the playing field for women scientists. I am one of the full-time working mothers that you speak about. I was hired 10 years ago into a Biology department, and was the last woman hired even though we have made 8 appointments since. We have 25 academics in our department, 4 of which are women (16%). Only one woman is at the level of Professor (hired in at that level), the rest of us are Senior Lecturers. I do much to help "mentor-up" the next generation; but I don't see a clear and promising path for myself. If I put less time into my teaching, helping my students (i.e. the feel good things that we don't really get much credit for at promotions rounds) I could publish more surely. So what to do? I am between the "commitment to students/quality teaching" rock and "being more selfish" hard place. One way would be to recognize contributions to the University as well as publications; those committees, services, and initiatives that fall to us to do because no one else will do them. Or perhaps we need to learn to "just say no" as so many of our colleagues can.
Avatar of: Shanthi Raam

Shanthi Raam

Posts: 43

January 10, 2008

I have always enjoyed Mr. Gallagher's editorials because he is candid in presenting the issues and thoughtful in suggesting solutions. This time his editorial " Am I a sexist?" gets only a C+ from me. Why? He is candid in admitting guilt, like a spouse revealing an extra marital affair to his/her partner, not going far enough to find the basic reason for wrong doing, but simply promising not to do it as often again. \nHiring women scientists to fill a pre-determined quota is an insult to the intellingent and deserving women scientists. Quota system as is done for hiring minorities for example, is widely recognized as having an undesirable spinner efffect leading to an underclass, a stamp that everyone hired (qualified or not so qualified to fill a number) carries on their shoulders. This ramification, we must avoid for deserving and qualified women scientists. Most importantly, it does not solve the problem of obliterating the "mind set" which says women scientists are not after all equal to men scientists; instead, it perpetuates, for time immemorial, this mind-set which we wish to root out. It simply removes the guilty feeling of those who still hang on to that baseless mind-set, giving them an outlet to feel good. How then to find a permanent solution? Mr. Gallagher , the likes of you can do this. You can be a pioneer. Get together as many men and women (yes, women too; there are a few who do have the same bias in hiring other women) who are in high status and hiring positions. Talk freely about their true soul-searched reasons for ignoring qualified women scientists for high posts. It may be as simple as not wanting to change their comfort zone; men who are used to inteacting with other men scientists enjoy a comfort and they do not wish to rock it. All this need to be discussed candidly without attaching any name-tags to those who participate. I am confident that this intelligent bunch of scintists will go beyond admitting guilt and come up with a permanet solution and mind excercises for modifying this destructive "excluding" mind-set to a constructive and an inclusive one.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

January 11, 2008

My wife and I both have Ph.D.'s. Lots of people think my wife is the better scientist, but she looked at what it takes to be an academic research scientist and decided it conflicted with her/our goals of starting a family. Now thanks to the myriad institutions fighting academic 'sexism', using formal and informal quotas, my prospects of landing an academic position are further diminished. A quick thought experiment: how many years of hiring only women would it take to 'fix' the system, anyway? \n\n When my wife and I got married, lots of people pointed out that I had a better chance of landing an academic job if my wife and I were hired together and 'offset' each other. When my wife and I looked at the cost this strategy would have on our family we decided not to do it. There is no shortage of women scientists who will say, privately, that it isn't worth the sacrifices to try to succeed in academia while raising a family. We have decided to take a pass on the social engineering, so it looks like we'll be sitting on the sidelines watching others fight 'sexism'. There's something debased about this whole process of trying to shape people and their lifestyles to fit academia and not vice versa.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 11

January 12, 2008

Much of the problems and solutions described for sexism would apply to racism against ethnic minorities, including Asians, as well.
Avatar of: Shelley Payne

Shelley Payne

Posts: 1

January 17, 2008

Phoebe Leboy?s article and the associated editorial in The Scientist highlight the findings of the National Academies report, ?Beyond Bias and Barriers?, which indicates that gender bias is still a major contributing factor to the artificially low number of women in science. The insidious nature of this problem is evident in our analysis of data regarding the relative contribution of factors influencing the low numbers of female faculty at our institution. The percentage of tenured women in natural sciences at the University of Texas (Astronomy, Biological Sciences, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Computer Sciences, Geological Sciences, Marine Science, Mathematics, and Physics) is 10%, essentially unchanged over the last 12 years. This statistic is not a pipeline problem since women have received 30-40% of the Ph.D. degrees in science in the U.S. for the past 14 years, a period of time sufficient to allow women to move into tenured positions. The paucity of senior women even extends into the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Texas, where women represent less than 20% of the tenured faculty despite hiring from a pool in which women comprise more than 40% of those holding Ph.D. degrees. These numbers cannot be solely attributed to a hiring problem since the percentage of women hired in our College has been 20-30% of the Assistant Professors over the past 10 years. These statistics also cannot be attributed to the lack of female leadership since our College has had a female dean for the last 13 years. Rather, our data support the findings of the National Academies that cultural bias is a basis for gender inequities in the sciences and engineering. \nFurthermore, senior faculty women face a dramatic concrete ceiling with regard to salaries. When merit raises in our department were distributed without defined criteria for performance or evaluation, female faculty were penalized. For example, the administration supplemented departmental raises for the 2005-06 academic year without a defined merit review; more than $60,000 was distributed to male full professors, while the females received only $750. Our efforts to highlight the blatant nature of the salary discrepancies led to a gender-blind analysis by a committee of faculty from outside the department. The results showed a striking lack of correlation between women?s salaries and their accomplishments, clearly demonstrating the ceiling effect for the salaries of female Professors. While there was no significant difference in merit rankings for male and female full professors (p=0.2), the difference in salaries was significant (p=0.03). The highly-rated performance of the female faculty occurred in spite of the lack of access to the same resources as the males. The endowed chairs (currently 5) with their associated financial and administrative support are all held by males. \nData on the earliest time periods after appointment to tenure-track positions are consistent with the gender bias problem. Males and females are hired with the same salary and funding for initiation of their research programs, yet female faculty subsequently receive lower raises than their male peers. Comparing salaries of two individuals, one male and one female Assistant Professor, hired within the same six-month period in our department, shows that the female?s salary diverged from that of her male counterpart within three years of hiring, despite her demonstrated excellence. This clear demonstration of the operation of a cultural gender bias in allotment of salary raises and other rewards suggests that this bias also operates in the hiring and promotion of women. We suggest that gender inequities in the salary arena would be eliminated if the same objective and quantitative approaches as those applied to other scientific data were used for the determination of salaries and distribution of other faculty resources irrespective of gender. Faculty must insist on the use of objective criteria for merit reviews and on the use of outside committees to monitor and evaluate the data, as we have begun to do at our institution. Following review, the female assistant professor?s salary was adjusted to the same level as the male?s, and the salaries of the female full professors were partially corrected. However, such periodic catch-ups leave the females lagging far behind in total compensation and place an additional burden on women faculty to draw attention to the inequities. Only when bias is eliminated from the system for salary and resource allocation will morale for female faculty improve, encouraging other women to enter and thrive in the sciences. \n\nShelley M. Payne, Jaquelin P. Dudley, Rasika Harshey and Karen Artzt\nSection of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology, The University of Texas at Austin\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

November 27, 2008

How have you done on your goal to increase the number of women on your Board? I hope you were successful!\n\nAndrea

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