Using Science to Achieve Workforce Diversity

By Dr. Janine A. Clayton

dr claytonWhy are women underrepresented in the scientific workforce? The reasons are many and complex, but NIH and others have been investing time and money to find out why and to use that knowledge to create a more inclusive scientific workforce.

ORWH and other NIH Institutes and Centers have invested nearly $17 million in grants to the Research on Causal Factors and Interventions that Promote and Support the Careers of Women in Biomedical and Behavioral Science and Engineering program. The "Causal Factors principal investigators (PIs)" are using the scientific method to find out why women and other underrepresented groups are not in the scientific workforce in greater numbers, why those who are in the workforce may leave, and why those who remain in the workforce may be less likely to hold leadership positions.

The PIs have authored 62 manuscripts and given 162 presentations on their research. Their work is helping us better understand women scientists' career paths and experiences so that we can develop better strategies for the sustained advancement of women in science. As far as we know, this is the first investigation of its kind on this scale.

Importantly, investigators are evaluating and testing a variety of interventions designed to promote the advancement of women in science. For example, an intervention designed to provide a more supportive culture at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine was associated with enhanced academic productivity and job satisfaction of women faculty.i Successful programs to promote gender diversity in the biomedical workforce can have far-reaching implications.

The PIs will discuss their research on June 6 at NIH at the Conference on Evidence-Based Innovations to Support Women in Biomedical Research Careers . I'm sure that this meeting will generate just as much buzz as their first meeting 4 years ago.

Examining Disparities

I once heard somebody say "We've got to decriminalize bias." What he meant is that all of us have been exposed to stereotypes that can lead us to act in biased ways without even realizing it. His message was that we have to accept this as human, but then work mighty hard to overcome it. NIH is working hard to do just that.

In 2011, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins and Principal Deputy Director Dr. Lawrence Tabak commented on findings published in Science showing that African American grant applicants were less likely to receive NIH funding than white applicants.ii They also noted the underrepresentation of some groups of people in science, including women. "The inescapable conclusion is that we are missing critical contributors to our talent pool," they wrote.

More work is needed with regard to funding women scientists. According to information from the NIH Data Book, women constitute only about 30 percent of PIs who receive a research project grant. A recent study in JAMA Dermatologyiii found a downward trend in the number of women PIs receiving NIH funding for dermatology research, while the number of male PIs trended upward. The authors opined that these disparities might not be due to bias but may be related to the tendency for women to occupy positions with fewer resources.

Disparities in Compensation and Perceived Work Climate

In an analysis of start-up packages of 127 men and 92 women applying for grant support from the Medical Foundation Division of Health Resources in Action, the median start-up packages for men in basic science were 67 percent greater than those of women ($889,000 vs. $350,000), even though both genders had similar degrees and came from similar institutions.iv

Disparities in salaries and other compensation have also been found. A study of mid-career academic physicians found that men were more likely to have a higher salary than women, even after adjustment for specialty, academic rank, leadership positions, publications, and research time.v The more we understand where these disparities exist and how they occur, the more quickly we can fix them.

Disparities in perceived climate have also been reported. A telephone survey of 42 medical school professors, one-third of them male, found a wide spectrum in perceived climate; a lack of parity in rank and leadership by gender; a lack of retention of women in academic medicine; a lack of gender equity in compensation; and a disproportionate burden of family responsibilities and work-life balance on women's career

NIH has moved forward on new programs to help level the playing field for everybody. We outline some NIH efforts to promote the careers of women in biomedical science in a new paper in Academic Medicine.vii We discuss NIH efforts to support researchers returning to the workforce after a period away, NIH career development awards, and our trans-NIH efforts toward sustained advancement of women in science through the group that I co-chair with Dr. Collins, the NIH Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers.

Some Initiatives from ORWH

ORWH is involved in a number of career development  (PDF - 473.0KB) programs, and developed and leads the Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health (BIRCWH) K12 program.

BIRCWH (pronounced "birch") is open to men and women who are interested in women's health and sex differences research. Since this trans-NIH effort began in 2000, more than 542 junior faculty (most of them women) at 39 institutions have received BIRCWH funding.

Mentoring is an important part of becoming a successful scientist and is a huge component of BIRCWH. Women and members of underrepresented groups can benefit from knowledgeable and skilled mentors who can help them navigate the unique obstacles that they face. ORWH has produced fact sheets that contain best practices for both mentors  (PDF - 1.5MB) and mentees  (PDF - 2.4MB).

The need for mentors never sunsets. My mentors have helped me reach my goals at every career stage; I continue to receive their guidance, and seek to pay it forward.

One of the goals of the ORWH strategic plan, published in 2010, is to employ innovative strategies to build a well-trained, diverse, and vigorous women's health research workforce. With these and other programs, and with the knowledge we gain from investigators such as those from the Research on Causal Factors and Interventions, we will one day reach this goal.

As we do so, I hope to see you at the Conference on Evidence-Based Innovations to Support Women in Biomedical Research Careers on June 6 in Natcher Auditorium.


i Pati, S., Reum, J., Conant, E., Tuton, L.W., Scott, P., Abbuhl, S., and Grisso, J.A. (2013). Tradition Meets Innovation: Transforming Academic Medical Culture at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. Academic Medicine, 88(4), 461–464.

ii Tabak, L., Collins, F. (2011). Weaving a Richer Tapestry in Biomedical Science. Science, 333(6045), 940–941.

iii Cheng, M.Y., Sukhov, A., Sultani, H., Kyoungmi, K., Maverakis, E. (2016). Trends in National Institutes of Health Funding of Principal Investigators in Dermatology Research by Academic Degree and Sex. JAMA Dermatology. Doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.0271.

iv Sege, R., Nykiel-Bub, L., Selk, S. (2015). Sex Differences in Institutional Support for Junior Biomedical Researchers. Journal of the American Medical Association, 314(11), 1175-1177.

v Jagsi, R., Griffith, K.A., Steward, A., Sambuco, D., DeCastro, R., Ubel, P.A. (2012). Gender Differences in the Salaries of Physician Researchers. JAMA, 307(22), 2410–2417.

vi Carr, P.L., Gunn, C.M., Kaplan, S.A., Raj, A., and Freund, K.M. (2015). Inadequate Progress for Women in Academic Medicine: Findings from the National Faculty Study. Journal of Women's Health, 24(3), 190–199.

vii Plank-Bazinet, J., Whittington, KB., Cassidy, S., Filart, R., Cornelison, T., Begg, L., Clayton, JA. (2016). Programmatic Efforts at the National Institutes of Health to Promote and Support the Careers of Women in Biomedical Science. Academic Medicine, 91:00–00. First published online doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000001239