Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Wellcome Trust study “Do Babies Matter?” cites more career hurdles for females than for male peers.

To promote its upcoming movie Thor: The Dark World, Marvel Studios is joining the National Academy of Sciences and other organizers in offering young women a chance to meet successful women in “STEM” or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.

If recent studies and history is any guide, young women who pursue the required Ph.D.s will encounter more obstacles than their male peers, for which they might need the superhuman stamina of Thor as much as the brains of the movie’s female lead, astrophysicist Jane Foster.

In “Risks and Rewards: How Ph.D. Students Choose Their Careers,” the Wellcome Trust pinpointed three concerns cited by women Ph.D.s as key factors that may drive them or other women researchers away from academic careers earlier than men:

  • A lack of mentoring and career support from supervisors and colleagues.
  • A dearth of female role models for aspiring researchers.
  • The tension between competitiveness and meritocracy.

“While the women in our study were undoubtedly high achievers, many felt that the competitiveness of science (e.g., to secure a grant and post), and especially at the early career stages, results in less weight being given to integrity and meritocracy, making academia an unattractive long-term career option for those who are less naturally competitive,” the study concluded.

Those challenges are in addition to five identified by women and men—pressures to find funds, publish, work long work hours, relocate for career advancement, and maintain career stability.

A Wellcome Trust spokeswoman, Jen Middleton, told GEN the findings did not suggest women were less likely to want a research career: “But there are indications that some of the characteristics of academia are less attractive to women. The report focused on perceptions of academia, so we can’t offer too much insight into views on industry per se.”

Do Babies Matter?

Earlier this year in “Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower” (Rutgers University Press), Mary Ann Mason, J.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and two co-authors offered more sobering statistics.

Women represented between 20% (engineering) and 71% (psychology) of UC system Ph.D.s in science (51% of life sciences Ph.D.s). Yet 41% of women postdocs who had babies retreated from their original goal of being a research professor, versus 20% of single women, noted Mason, a professor and co-director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Economics & Family Security, and co-authors Nicholas H. Wolfinger of the University of Utah and Marc Goulden, UC Berkeley’s director of data initiatives.

The percentage of UC system female science Ph.D.s expressing that goal shrunk within three years, from 39% to 24%, then inched up and back down over years 3–7.

“There are few routes back to a career in research science once one has taken a break. There are few childbirth leaves or stop-the-clock tenure policies in place for postdocs who are usually not considered employees, but trainees,” Mason told GEN. “For graduate students, women are far more likely than men to change their career direction away from research science, and the major reasons they give have to do with concern about being able to pursue a tenure track job and have a family.”

The age of newly minted Ph.D.s averages 34—just when the proverbial biological clock is ticking for women—followed by four-plus years as a postdoc.

“They don’t want to wait until they’re 40 to start having kids. So they have kids, and then they promptly get pushed out of academic careers for lack of maternity leave,” Joan C. Williams, distinguished professor of law and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, told GEN. One of the center’s projects identifies academic gender bias through videos, text, and even an online board game.

Williams said women looking at other academic research women see too many patterns of bias: Pressure to prove themselves repeatedly or handle menial tasks; poor treatment of career researchers; and even harsh treatment from older women investigators who fear an underperformer reflects badly on them.

“If women draw a line in the sand, ‘No I’m not going to do that,’ or God forbid, lose their temper over something, they can be written off as really bitchy, whereas from a man, ‘a no is just a no,’” said Williams who researched the topic for a book to be published in February, “What Works for Women at Work” (New York University Press). Williams talked to women in law, business, and STEM, finding that those in STEM and finance had experiences most similar to the blatant bias often suffered by 1980s-era professional women.

Changing Academic Culture

What would work for women, Williams and Mason agreed, is emulating the UC system in adopting family-friendlier policies and programs. They include paid parental leave for childbirth, paid maternity leave for graduate students, teaching relief for new mothers and new fathers, more child care facilities, emergency child care at some campuses for faculty and graduate students, dual-career hiring policies, stopping the tenure clock for childbirth, and allowing a faculty member to work part time for child care, elder care or other family emergencies.

Williams and Mason joined the Association for Women in Science in developing “Tools for Change in STEM,” whose website offers training materials and data. The site will soon offer a simulator contrasting costs of STEM faculty attrition with those of family-friendlier programs such as maternity/paternity leave, release from teaching, and tenure-clock stoppage.

“What institutions should be doing is, number one, designing career tracks that don’t assume a stay-at-home wife,” Williams said. “Secondly, they should be training people how to spot these kinds of subtle bias, and interrupt them. If they aren’t doing those two things, then nothing much is going to change. And they aren’t doing either one of them.”

Wellcome Trust likewise called for changing academic culture, urging universities to become family-friendlier, awarding fewer-but-longer funding awards, and ending relocation requirements for funding.

The Trust also recommended helping Ph.D. students plan careers and fill out grant applications, informing them about careers in and outside academia, and enhancing networking opportunities and mentoring. Yet mentoring should also take place occur outside academia, as with Marvel’s “Thor: The Dark World Ultimate Mentor Adventure.”

Wellcome Trust’s study comes almost a year since “Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students,” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The influential paper found that biology, chemistry, and physics professors all favored a male job candidate “John” over a female “Jennifer” with identical qualifications for a fictitious science lab manager position. The professors’ bias cut across gender lines and field of study. Lead author Jo Handelsman, Ph.D., of Yale University has since been nominated by President Obama for associate director for science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy; she awaits Senate confirmation.

Dr. Handelsman is a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, and was first president of the Rosalind Franklin Society, whose founder and executive vp is GEN Publisher & CEO Mary Ann Liebert.

“The discussion of low numbers of women in academic science is not necessarily a new one. Throughout, however, it has centered around the external factors of family, income, and workload without considering the internal factors leading to these discrepancies,” Stephanie K. Eberle, director of Stanford University’s School of Medicine Career Center, told GEN. “It is forcing search committees, PIs, and administrators to reconsider hiring practices, approaches to mentoring, and communication patterns in the lab.”

Eberle rightly notes that institutions that don’t reform their practices risk sending an unwelcome message: “Faculty development and diversity initiatives imply that mentoring, knowledge-sharing, representation, etc., are values of the university. Cutting such programs imply that these are less valued. It is not that they are less valued, per se, but people experience these cuts as though they are being devalued.”

Academic institutions, she said, should work on other symbolic representations of support, such as changing tenure requirements to better accommodate those with families, actively targeting a percentage of diversity hires, or developing relatively inexpensive solutions such as second mentor programs.

As GEN noted last year, academia can avoid the backlash that impeded past racial-diversity efforts. One way, Eberle said, is for institutions to acknowledge that gender bias is universal and unintentional: “One is not a bad person for exhibiting unintentional bias; one simply needs to try to recognize bias, where it comes from, and then work to try to minimize/prevent its occurrence.”

Previous articleYale Launches Collaboration with ARO, CRO Partners
Next articleAstraZeneca Acquires Spirogen for Up to $440M