Calling Upon “Science” to Justify Bias is An Old, Ongoing Story…including in Science itself.

The Google gender bias debate over the value of inclusion and diversity initiatives reminds me very much of the conversations I had when interviewing professors around the country several years ago about the status of women faculty in the US, and the biases that women have faced entering the grind of tenure track employment.

Like in the tech industry, women can be hard to find in many facets of STEM, especially in the upper echelons of hierarchical constructs like academic departments and scientific institutions.

In many fields, it can be hard to find women in conference panels, leading university departments, heading scientific organizations or becoming president of an institution, just like it can be hard to find a woman sitting in the software or hardware engineering department of a Silicon Valley company.  And this obvious lack of women begs the question for some: why?

The assumption by some majority members that the lack of minority members in any particular position/industry is automatically and unequivocally due to a biological inability or their “natural” disinterest in these roles is not a new one. It’s been repeated any number of times by majority members who take a superficial look around and comment that minority members must be minorities because they’re somehow inferior to themselves.  After all, I know what I went through to get here; obviously that’s what others face, and they just weren’t up to snuff.  There’s no other reason than the natural motivations and capabilities of those other individuals, right?

Without directly addressing the points in the manifesto (and I did read it; background research is important!), I’d like to share, with permission, my article below.  It serves to address many of the same opinions confidently stated in the Google manifesto, and hopefully people can see just how common and pervasive unconscious bias can be in a different, but just as competitive playing field – academia.  The biases these professors face are also the exact same ones brought up in the Google example; perhaps you can spot them.  Even though some of the statistics are a little dated, the trend in 2017 remains the same (especially since the pace of academia is much slower than that in business).

I hope you come to the conclusion that I have: while there is no perfect answer, it matters that organizations make an active effort to counter bias when it is aware of them.

My bolds and highlights emphasize points which are especially relevant to this discussion.


What’s the Problem?

In the past few decades, women have made great advances in the pursuit of higher education; more than half of all Ph.D. recipients in the life sciences in 2008 were women (1, 2), and women constituted approximately 45% of postdoctoral fellows in 2007 (3).

A much lower percentage of women, however, hold tenure faculty and administrative positions (1-4). In the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in 2006, women made up between 7.2 and 22.2% of tenured faculty (1). A National Research Council study in 2009 found similarly low numbers (4). In 2001, only 18% of tenured senior investigators at the federally funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) were women, and as of 2011, it has risen only 1% (5).

The slow growth of women faculty in the STEM fields, as well as concerns over recruitment, hiring and resource allocation (1), have prompted much discussion over the past few years. Internal reviews initiated at leading U.S. research institutions have turned a spotlight on the issues at hand.

The NIH performed its first intramural research program salary analysis in 1994 and corrected “notable disparities” between men and women investigators. Since then, its Office of Intramural Research continues to track salaries and alert institute administration officials of discrepancies (5).

Joy Hirsch, currently a professor of neuroscience and Director of the Program for Imaging and Cognitive Sciences at Columbia University, chaired the Status of Women Committee at Yale University shortly after she received tenure there in 1989. At that time, women made up only 6% of the faculty (6), and she strove to change that.

She said that merely publishing an annual neutral internal report on the statistics of women faculty by department effectively stimulated the university to begin recruiting more qualified women. “We never had to say a word,” she said.

Several years later, committees of women faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) conducted their own internal investigations for a similar reason; tenured women constituted only 7% of the faculty in the School of Science. (7). They published a summary of their findings in 1999 in a report that would prompt MIT to become a national role model for addressing gender equity issues in academia. In the wake of the report, the MIT administration implemented policies to help employees balance work and family responsibilities, made efforts to include women faculty on search committees, and paid increased attention to the mentoring of junior faculty, among other things (8, 9).

Although the 1999 MIT report has its critics (10), and factors other than gender discrimination have been proposed as the root cause of gender inequity among science faculty (11), data from the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation (2), and the NIH (12), as well as testimonies from outspoken individuals provide a large body of evidence confirming that gender discrimination remains a problem in the ranks of higher education and the employment of women in STEM fields.

Ben Barres, a transgendered professor of neurobiology, developmental biology and neurology at Stanford University, has been a vocal advocate for women in science. In a 2006 essay in Nature, he noted that his opinions and scientific merit were devalued back when he was ‘Barbara.’

“For talented women, academia is all too often not a meritocracy,” he wrote (13).

MIT issued a follow-up to its 1999 report earlier in 2011. While it documented progress —increases in the number of junior and senior female faculty in the School of Science and of women holding senior administrative positions, for example—some old problems remain and new ones have surfaced (8).

Various institutional actions, particularly apt to address this dynamic set of issues, have emerged, such as increasing diversity in hiring, monitoring equity concerns, increasing mentoring, and raising advocacy awareness among faculty members (1, 4, 12).

Fighting Momentum

A professor of biology at MIT, Nancy Hopkins chaired the 1999 MIT report and was a committee member on the 2011 report. She says the first step to instigating change was getting more women in the door. “[MIT] women have gotten tenure at pretty much the same rate as men for a long time—decades,” she said in a written correspondence. “The most important thing that was done to increase the number of women faculty in [the School of] Science was to hire more of them!”

Hazel Sive, professor of biology and the Associate Dean for the School of Science at MIT, elaborated that the university engaged in one-by-one outreach to talented women scientists. “I think encouraging really top women to apply for positions was pivotal,” she said. “There was a sense that MIT was not a place where women were welcome, and in fact they weren’t. The response to that has been to make it clear that women are welcome here, that we value smart people regardless of their gender. This is really the bottom line.”

Once a scientist is in a tenure-track position, tenure committees ultimately judge candidates based on teaching records, research prowess, and service to the university, among other considerations. It is often this process in which women find themselves at a disadvantage (1, 14).

“Tenure is all about valuing somebody’s work, about how the individuals on the committee rate the candidate’s qualifications,” said Hirsch. She pointed out that assumptions and expectations about personality can work against a woman seeking tenure. She calls letters of recommendation the “kiss of death” when gender-influenced language is used to describe women, making them appear timid or weak when compared to male competitors. Yet she notes that these biases are not necessarily intentional. “If you ask the people who are qualified to make the decision to rethink it based on the possibility that they might be devaluing the [woman’s] contribution, then they do.” And she adds, “And it’s not always in favor of the woman.”

While outright discrimination, like salary discrepancies and differential treatment of women in science, may seem like problems of the past, they are nevertheless still reported (1, 8). The 2011 MIT report lists stereotypes that remain in today’s scientific culture, from exclusion of women from professional activities to perceptions that there are lower standards for women in tenure reviews.

“Changing attitudes is the hardest thing of all,” Hopkins wrote. “You have to work on doing it; you can’t wait for it. There is an old saying: ‘Change the institution and the hearts and the minds will follow.’” Hirsch voiced a similar opinion, stating that institutions must step up to “bring women on board” (14).

The Parenting Issue

The pervading issue of childbirth and caregiving results from the overlap of tenure-track timelines and a woman’s optimal years of biological fertility. This is an often-cited reason for women “leaking” from the science pipeline (1-4).

Barres said in a written correspondence, “Tenure is hard to achieve even for single people or men with kids. If you then add primary care duty on top of that, it is even harder. The system without question works against women.”

The Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), with a pool of almost 170,000 participants, reported that among tenured faculty, only 53% of women were married with children, compared with 73% of men. Married women with young children were also 35% less likely to get a tenure-track faculty position than married men with young children (2). Tenure-clock extensions, whereby an extra year until tenure is added for the birth of a child, have been implemented by as many as two-thirds of U.S. research institutions in an effort to retain junior faculty with young families, women tenure-track scientists in particular (3, 4).

Yet simply outlining a policy without working it into a culture of cut-throat competition has left women in some institutions afraid to request the extension (15). Institutions themselves can help in this regard. For example, the NIH implemented a stop-the-clock mechanism when it first established its tenure-track policy in 1994; it recently eliminated the need to officially request the addition of a year to the maximum tenure-track length allowed for family or personal reasons (5).

Barres commented that the tenure-clock extension policy may be short-sighted. “Who decided one baby is equal to one year?” he wrote. “And why do babies born at the end of a postdoc not count for this time extension?” Sive felt similarly that female postdocs and graduate students who have children may also benefit from an extension.

Adding weight to this idea are data showing that female postdocs who have children during their postdoc years are twice as likely as men who have children and as childless women who do not plan to have children to shift their career goals away from research professorships (2).

Inclusive Support

Alongside pushes for institutional attention, individual scientists serve as excellent advocates for gender equity through day-to-day mentorship.

“[Mentoring] is not really a special need that women had,” Hopkins said, “but rather something that men usually already had and that women were often excluded from.”

Positive role models inspire the next generation of scientists. This was the impetus behind the publication of a document highlighting Women in Science at the NIH (12). Almost all the featured women spoke of the importance of good mentorship and the impact it had on the success of their own careers.

Hirsch takes a “Socratic” approach to mentoring in her laboratory, making everything from departmental politics to problems in daily life topics of open discussion. “We deal with those issues openly and with [a] sense of humor,” she said, “but the intent is to provide a model so women—and men—can address these issues constructively and from an experience base. I think naiveté in these issues is a real risk factor. The more experience that postdocs and graduate students have with the management of these issues, the better equipped they are when the issues become their own.”

Women eyeing academic careers are also in positions to be their own advocates. Sive, Hopkins, and Hirsch urge postdocs applying for tenure-track faculty positions to proactively determine if an institution has concerned itself with the well-being of its women faculty.

“If [women postdocs] are concerned about fairness for women—not advantages, just fairness—they have to look at the university policies and practices,” said Hirsch. “It’s high time we stopped being nice and started being objective. Just look at the numbers. Some departments and institutions are fabulous, and when they are, you see the distribution of women at around 35-40% at the high levels. And when they’re not, you see the distribution down around 10% or less in some cases. Look at the number of endowed chairs that women have relative to men. That really is the new ‘glass ceiling.’”

An Ongoing Challenge

In the end, advocating for equitable treatment of women faculty is beneficial to the scientific enterprise as a whole; when talented scientists are recognized and valued regardless of gender, everyone has more energy for the science. Moreover, although not representative of all research institutions, the results of the 2011 MIT Status Report are encouraging. They demonstrate that concerned individuals and institutional commitments to gender equity can bring about fundamental changes in policies and administrative attitudes.

“The major finding…is that there has been remarkable progress for women faculty in Science and Engineering at MIT…in terms of equity, status and numbers,” the report summary concludes. But of course, there is still work to be done.

“Can you ever stop thinking about equity issues?” Sive remarked. “Or do you need to constantly monitor that policies are promoting equity both at the hiring and at the resource and salary level? It’s important to celebrate the outcomes, that things are much better. But I think it’s really important not to diminish what hasn’t been addressed, and the real challenges that women are facing at the levels from students to faculty.”


Original Title: “Institutional Commitments and Grassroots Advocacy: Advancing the Status of Women Faculty”.  Reprinted with permission from the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) Magazine

For those who are interested in a fascinating commentary upon the topic of gender, capability, visibility and biology by someone who knows first-hand the difference in social differences between men and women, please read Prof. Ben Barres’ fantastic piece, Does Gender Matter, where he reflects upon his experience as a transgendered person within academia.  It’s from 2006, but obviously this topic is still new to many.

Article References:

1. American Federation of Teachers. (2011). Promoting gender diversity in the faculty: what higher education unions can do. Retrieved June 2011, from

2. Mason, M., Goulden, M., Frasch, K. (2010). Keeping women in the science pipeline. Focus on workplace flexibility. Retrieved June 2011 from the_science_pipeline.pdf

3. Martinez, E. D. et al. (2007). Falling off the academic bandwagon. European Molecular Biology Organization. 8(11): 977-981.

4. Mejia, R. (2010). Gender stop-gaps. Nature. 465, 832- 833. Retrieved June 2011 from

5. Personal communication, Office of Intramural Research, NIH. June 29, 2011

6. Personal communication, Joy Hirsch. June 2011.

7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (1999). A study on the status of women faculty in science at MIT. Retrieved May 2011 from html

8. A report on the status of women faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT 2011. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved May 2011 from: http://

9. Zernike, K. (2011). Gains and drawbacks for female professors. New York Times. Retrieved June 2011 from http://

10. Sommers, C. H. (2008). Why can’t a woman be more like a man? Journal of the American Enterprise Institute.

11. Goldenberg, S. (2005). Why women are poor at science. Guardian. Retrieved May 2011 from

12. Women in science at the National Institutes of Health, 2007-2008. (2008). Office of Research on Women’s Health, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department Human Services. Retrieved May 2011 from NIH-WomenInScience07-08.pdf

13. Barres, B. Does gender matter? (2006). Nature. 442, 133-136.

14. Kolata, G. (2011). Women atop their fields dissect the scientific life. The New York Times. Retrieved June 2011 from

15. Bhattacharjee, Y. (2004). Family matters: stopping tenure clock may not be enough. Science. 306(5704):2031-2033.

Respectful comments & discussion are welcome!

2017-08-09T18:33:11+00:00 By |Categories: PhDs in the Real World|0 Comments

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