Monday, September 24, 2007

Why Do Female Professors Leave the Biological Sciences? recently posted an article called Why Women Leave Academic Medicine which describes the efforts of Phoebe Leboy, president-elect of the Association for Women in Science, to understand and ameliorate the lack of women in higher level academic positions -- dean, department chair, tenured professor -- in the biological sciences.

In contrast to the physical sciences, women earn half of the Ph.D.s awarded in biological sciences, so the problem is not attracting qualified women to the field, it's about keeping them there. Family-unfriendly policies and practices that disproportionately affect women are part of the problem, Leboy says. Another key seems to be research project grants, which are disproportionately awarded to male scientists.

The average male researcher, according to NIH data Leboy cited, has 1.4 basic research project grants, compared to slightly less than 1.3 for women. While men and women earn new NIH grants at roughly the same rate, women get “consistently fewer” competing renewals grants than men do. And for every dollar a male primary investigator receives, women get 80 cents.

Female researchers earn 42 percent of the NIH’s lower-level “career development” awards, which is about the rate one would expect given the rate at which they earn doctorates. But they get 25 percent of regular research grants and less than 20 percent of the bigger “center” and small business innovation research grants that the NIH is increasingly emphasizing. And only 17 percent of NIH-funded research centers at medical schools have women as their primary investigator, Leboy’s research shows.

I think these statistics raise some interesting and important questions about whether grant- awarding organizations and universities themselves can do more to ensure all professors are on equal footing when applying for grant money. As one person commented in response to this article, academic practices were created by men and "evolved to be what they are today by virtue of the extent to which they were designed, revised, and maintained to meet the needs and expectations of men." Is it possible that male scientists benefit from this pedigree when applying for grant money? Is it easier for men to rely on existing social networks for advice and support in this area? Does the application process create unnecessary barriers to entry for some women? Are there mechanisms to ensure that decisionmakers don't engage in gender stereotyping when comparing among applicants?

I hope that Leboy and others continue to shed light on the gender disparities in research grants, which seems like a predicate to dismantling the structural inequalities in the academic sciences.

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