Playing in the Sandbox: Advancing Women in Science

By Dr. Janine A. Clayton

dr claytonThere is no question that 21st century biomedicine is an exciting place to be. Mind-bending advances in genomics, imaging, information technology, behavioral science, and data management liken the job of being a scientist to playing in a huge sandbox with lots of cool toys.

Does it matter who's in the sandbox?

The answer is an emphatic "yes," and a substantial body of research stands behind that claim. We know from seminal work in the behavioral and social sciences that diversity promotes synergy and excellence, paving the way for inventive problem solving. Moreover, the team science approach that modern biomedicine absolutely requires calls even louder for interdisciplinary approaches and ways of thinking that both accommodate and learn from disparate viewpoints.

Thankfully, we've made major progress in recent years toward ensuring that women get a fair shake at learning about opportunities in research and medicine, in pursuing those opportunities, and some progress on the salary front. But, we must sustain our momentum and find ways to shift into high gear to accelerate change since there is still much work to do.

For example, a recent study showcased dramatically the presence of gender bias in science, reporting that males were significantly more likely than females to be selected for a scientific position (the fictional applicants were assigned gender-specific names for a fictional position). The researchers observed that "female" applicants scored much lower than "males" in competence, hireability, and mentorability — and they were offered a dramatically lower starting salary.

Another example points to limits in faculty advancement. Although roughly half of all biomedical graduate and medical students are female, 14 percent of permanent department chairs are. At the November 2012 NIH-sponsored workshop "Causal Factors and Interventions Affecting Careers of Women in Biomedical and Behavioral Science and Engineering  (PDF - 321.9KB)," Dr. Hannah Valantine, a research cardiologist who also runs the Stanford University School of Medicine's Office of Diversity and Leadership, quoted some startling figures. Valantine noted, "At the current rate of improvement, attaining gender parity [in senior academic faculty positions] will take far longer than desired: 28 years at Stanford and 48 years nationwide."

Certainly, we cannot wait a half-century for women to catch up to men in faculty advancement, and we do not plan to. Many initiatives are underway — both at NIH and at universities and medical centers across the country — to address this multifaceted issue.

Promoting the recruitment, retention, re-entry, and advancement of women in biomedical careers is a vital aspect of the ORWH mission, and it is also a high priority for NIH. Many universities and medical centers have stepped up to the plate and have developed highly innovative strategies to speed the advancement of women and other under-represented groups in science and medical careers.

Vive la différence!