When it comes to science, there’s a definite gender gap. Only one-fifth of physics PhDs in this country are awarded to women; men account for about 70 percent of all authors of peer-reviewed scientific research; women get less scientific funding than men; and scientists are shown to be more likely to choose a male candidate over a female one, even when they have the exact same qualifications.
The gender gap varies across the science fields – engineering and computer science are the most male heavy — but when it comes to the number of people studying, biology tends to be fairly equal. In graduate biology classes, about half of the students are female, and 40 percent of biology postdocs are female. Things are looking up, right? Not so fast. After graduate school there’s a dramatic drop in the number of women who remain in academia. Nationwide, only 36 percent of assistant professors and 18 percent of full professors are women.
A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences could shed light on the situation, showing that elite male biology faculty have significantly fewer women in their labs. Headed up by professors that have won awards like the Nobel Prize and the National Medal of Science, these labs serve as a gateway into positions at top research institutions, and if women are underrepresented in the lab, they’ll be underrepresented in academia.
“What we found is that these labs really function as a gateway to the professoriate. So we think the fact that they’re not hiring very many women is important for understanding why there are still so few female faculty members,” said Jason Sheltzer, a graduate student in biology at MIT and author of the study.
Looking at data from the nation’s top 24 biology institutions, the researchers found that in labs run by female professors, women made up 53 percent of grad students and 46 percent of postdocs. Labs that were run by men had a slightly lower number of women, with 47 percent female grad students and 36 percent female postdocs.
But that gender gap got much worse in the labs of “elite” faculty. According to MIT News, “In the labs of male Nobel laureates, male grad students outnumbered female grad students by two to one, and male postdocs outnumbered female postdocs by more than three to one. In the labs of male HHMI investigators, only 31 percent of postdocs were female, compared with 38 percent for all other male professors.”
The same gender bias wasn’t found in labs run by elite female faculty however.
While the study did not take on the possible explanations for the gender bias, it can still be used as an impetus for change. “Once you know what the problem is, you can actually do something about it. It’s a great opportunity for these highly accomplished scientists to really reach out and make a very conscious effort to do something about the gender landscape of science at high-powered research institutions,” said Angelika Amon, the Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor in Cancer Research in MIT’s Department of Biology. “A large segment of the population is being excluded from doing high-level research, and that can never be a good thing. We’re losing out on bright and intelligent people.”