Why So Few Women Bioscientists at the Podium?

If visual impact correctly represented the position and participation of women in the biosciences, we could all join the Hallelujah Chorus and say the battle for recognition of women has been won and that further efforts could be laid to rest. Yes, it is true that more women have obtained junior staff appointments and that a few have even obtained senior appointments, more so than would have happened 10 years ago. But can one really say that women are hired in proportion to their numbers and acc

May 4, 1987
Rose Johnstone
If visual impact correctly represented the position and participation of women in the biosciences, we could all join the Hallelujah Chorus and say the battle for recognition of women has been won and that further efforts could be laid to rest. Yes, it is true that more women have obtained junior staff appointments and that a few have even obtained senior appointments, more so than would have happened 10 years ago. But can one really say that women are hired in proportion to their numbers and accomplishments in graduate school? Or that women are delivering papers in vivo in proportion to the numbers in attendance at scientific meetings?

A quick—and far from precise—nose count at the International Congress of Biochemistry in Amsterdam in August 1985 showed that 20 percent of the participants were women. But while many women presented posters or were major research contributors to the work reported at the addresses, they were conspicuous by their absence in the major symposia and the mini-symposia.

We recently did a nose count of women authors in two randomly chosen issues each of two leading journals in the biosciences— the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the Journal of Cell Biology— both of which list the author's first name. Female names made up 19 percent (57 out of 300) and 18 percent (48 out of 280), respectively, of the authors' names. These figures agree remarkably well with the attendance of women at the International Congress.

Curiously, the magic 20 percent also agrees with attendance at the 1986 summer meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, where the total number of listed participants was 136, 28 of them women. Of the participants, 10 were graduate students—five men and five women. But what did the speaker's list look like? Two women!

Where did the women go? Why were so few selected to be visible participants? Is the impact of women in science so small that even when they are co-authors on papers or principal authors of poster abstracts, and when they attend meetings in large numbers, there simply are too few women good enough or well-known enough to be in the minds of the organizers when the main events are planned? Or are they simply not in the minds of the organizers at all?

It is true that in addition to scientific merit, there are several other factors organizers must consider in choosing speakers, such as nationality, reciprocal exchanges (for an international meeting), former postdoctoral fellows, former professors—many legitimate and human reasons. But for equally legitimate reasons, it is time women stopped waiting for the Messiah and began doing a little self-help.

What We Can Do

To change the composition on the roster, to make it more representative of their contributions to the field, women are going to have to become more conscious of the activities of other women scientists in their professional communities. We must all become advocates for each other. At first, progress may be slow, because the presence of women as scientists is not keenly felt. But a development of this kind is not linear, it is exponential. One woman can recommend two, and two can recommend four. Moreover, one can expect that over time, men no less than women will develop gender consciousness. The change in the makeup of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Biological Chemistry over the past 10 years is evidence of remarkable progress. From 1977-1987, the number of women on the Board increased from four out of 112 to 14 out of 187. That change took place in response to efforts of the Equal Opportunities Committee of the parent society, which raised people's sensitivities. Competent women scientists existed before, they just weren't remembered at nomination time.

What else can we do to heighten recognition of the contributions of women? We can point out women's achievements in subtle yet visible ways. The International Association for Women Bioscientists (IAWB) has established a lectureship at the International Congress of Biochemistry. The lecture will be named for a retired female scientist who has made an outstanding contribution to biochemistry, and will be delivered by a female scientist at the peak of her career. The first such lecture will be named after Sarah Ratner and will be delivered by Elizabeth Neufeld at the forthcoming International Congress of Biochemistry in Prague in August 1988.

We hope the fallout from this approach will be at least twofold. First, the lecture might make the organizing committees more sensitive to the presence and activity of the women in their respective societies. Benign neglect probably constitutes one of the major reasons for our conspicuous absence from the big rosters. Second, a successful symposium would bring kudos to the sponsoring organization and carry the message to the new generation of young women bioscientists that their dedicated work will be recognized and appreciated.

Aiming for the top requires encouragement. Unlike men, young women in science rarely have patrons who help guide their careers. They should be encouraged to seek the guidance of established professionals. More established scientists, in turn, should make every effort to find these talented and ambitious young scientists and offer help and support in their career development.

All these measures would help overcome the longstanding male dominance as the most visible exponents of scientific progress. Complacency—the notion that all that can be done has been done—is the enemy of progress. There is no evidence that women are less endowed than men with scientific ability. Therefore it is only natural that the proportion of women in leading roles should be roughly that of men. Too many women take as many steps backward as forward in their scientific careers. The social factors that impede their progress can be changed, and it is up to all of us to change them.

Johnstone is secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Women in the Biosciences and is with the Department of Biochemistry at McGill University, 3655 Drummond St., Montreal, PQ, Canada H3G 1 Y6. Lee is president of the Association and is with the Department of Biochemistry, Wayne State University, Detroit MI 48202.