Message from the President: Women in Neuroscience: A Call to Action
Just two years ago, past president Moses Chao wrote a Message from the President on Gender Inequality: Biases and Challenges. He painted a picture of problems that are “difficult and not immediately tractable,” calling out key areas for attention: recruitment and promotion, mentorship, and climate. After gathering information from my female colleagues, students, and postdocs in neuroscience, and friends in law and business, I have tried to gauge what has changed since that column was written and where we can claim successes.
Women now outnumber men in many graduate and medical schools, and in neuroscience, the number of women receiving PhDs has risen to around 55 percent. Nearly half of the Society for Neuroscience membership is female.
SfN has raised awareness about recruiting, promoting, and retaining female faculty in academic settings, through the NSF-funded Increasing Women in Neuroscience (IWiN) program. In the last three years, workshops trained 137 chairs of neuroscience departments in 27 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, many of whom have gone on to develop strategies at their own institutions, implementing “change” projects. IWiN resources available on SfN.org include video interviews, interactive quizzes, and best practices for recruiting a diverse faculty, improving promotion and tenure practices and creating a favorable work climate.
Gender bias was the topic of the first Empirical Approaches to Neuroscience and Society Symposium at Neuroscience 2013, where economists and sociologists spoke about how differently men and women act, for example, when they compete. At the 2014 annual meeting, half of the special lectures will be given by women and most of the symposia and minisymposia will have at least one female speaker.
In the upper echelons of academia, men still greatly outnumber women. In 2003 and 2005, the number of women in tenure-track faculty positions was 25 percent and has stayed steady at 29 percent in 2009 and 2011. Currently, only 24 percent of full professors are women. Further, SfN’s recent Committee of Neuroscience Departments and Programs survey revealed that fewer than one in five department chairs are women. In medical schools, the number of female clinical department chairs or deans is just 13 percent.
The numbers in Europe aren’t much different. The European Union’s “She Figures” study of 33 countries shows that, although 59 percent of EU graduate students in 2010 were female, only 20 percent of senior academicians were women. Rates in both the U.S. and Europe are stuck at 20 percent!
What’s causing the discrepancy? We know that many young women still shy away from the sciences as early as elementary school. In my son’s third grade class, young girls gleefully peered through the microscope I brought to class and exclaimed that they were scientists, but didn’t think they could be scientists when they grew up. Implicit bias continues to undermine possibilities for girls and women interested in science careers. This bias knows no gender. A recent Harvard study revealed that 70 percent of men and women across 34 countries view science as more masculine than feminine. (See link to test on SfN.org/nqbias)
At many scientific conferences and in our institutions’ seminar series, men far outnumber women as featured speakers. Several colleagues have compiled a list of female speakers to help conference organizers achieve appropriate gender balance in invited and keynote lectures (see anneslist.net).
The glaring near-absence of women in leadership positions in academia may in part be the result of stereotyping those positions and leadership styles with ”male” characteristics, simply because they have traditionally been held by men. These biases can work against women even being considered for such positions by search committees.
Focusing on What Works
SfN’s IWiN project has uncovered many ways to address these issues and to successfully recruit, retain, and promote women in the field. Search committees need to be diverse and their members educated on how implicit bias influences the hiring process, from how applications are reviewed and letters of recommendation are written to how salaries are determined.
Of course, even after women are hired, they often enter into workplaces that are inhospitable to them. “The solution in the past has been ‘fix the woman,’ ” said Jill Becker (University of Michigan), who was co-principal investigator of the NSF grant that funded the IWiN project along with Anne Etgen (Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University). “It’s not just about making women adopt strategies that are beneficial to them; it’s about making sure that the workplace is more welcoming to women and that they are evaluated fairly.”
Call to Action
As president of SfN, I speak to both the younger generation and to those of us who have been around for a while. We need the diversity of women and men in every layer and facet of our world of science. Women can provide unique approaches to solutions in research, programs, and personnel interactions. Women draw on their experiences as caregivers and as organizers and managers of work/life balance.
As you become more engaged and begin to take on leadership roles — as postdocs and junior faculty or faculty in high positions — encourage, promote, and help retain women who have entered the neuroscience field. Here are some ways:
- At all ages and stages, find a mentor who is supportive and with whom you can identify.
- Mentor an aspiring scientist in a high school research program or participate in a science-for-kids event that animates the excitement of science. These experiences inspire and can be life changing.
- Share narratives on how you manage life and career. How did you do it (with or without children), and why do you keep doing the science you love even with current funding vagaries? For some heartfelt narratives, see fairhalllab.com/careers/how-does-she-do-it.
- Create peer group meetings, over lunch or coffee, and invite men, too. Break out of your isolation to encourage and support one another. When I was a grad student at Berkeley in the ’70s, such gatherings produced seeds for change during the women’s movement.
- Form a mentoring committee for every incoming junior faculty — to advise setting up their lab and hiring students and staff, when and where to publish, how to network and make one’s self known, and how much and what type of service they should do.
- Advocate for child care and salary equity, and campaign for an Office of Postdoctoral Affairs if your institution lacks one.
- Suggest women as featured speakers, and nominate them for major awards.
When you are invited to assume leadership positions, I ask that you not shy away from stepping up and saying yes. The message of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” can be instructive as a route for change. Even if you aren’t confident you will be heard, or you are unsure about taking on additional responsibility, just do it. Take a seat at the table. Only by having more women in positions of influence will more equitable opportunities be created for everyone. With your help and the collective support of the field, we can change the dynamic for women in neuroscience.