Women scientists are not pursuing advanced research careers because of a heavier burden of family responsibility and lower confidence compared to men, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of its own research staff appearing in the November 2007 issue of the EMBO Reports, part of the Nature family of publications.
Although women comprise nearly half of all undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral scientists nationwide, after committing 10 to 15 years to scientific training, many leave academic research during the career transition to faculty or tenured positions. For example, at the NIH, only 29 percent of the tenure-track principal investigators (PI) and 19 percent of tenured PIs — the NIH equivalent of assistant and full professors, respectively — are women. These figures have hardly changed over the last decade and mirror the disparities at most academic research institutions.
“The NIH is not alone in this problem,” said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. “There’s a great brain drain occurring at research institutions across the country as women fall off the tenure track. The reasons, we found, are deep-seated and numerous. This study is a step forward in remedying the problem.”
The study was conducted by the Second Task Force on the Status of NIH Intramural Women Scientists, established by Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman, M.D., and his assistant director, Joan Schwartz, Ph.D., in 2003 to investigate the causes of this ongoing gap. As the largest biomedical research facility in the United States, with thousands of researchers, the NIH is uniquely suited to conduct a study representative of the research community at large to investigate gender disparity.
Over 1,300 male and female NIH postdoctoral researchers, of the 2,400 total postdocs at the NIH, responded to a survey. Most scientists, upon completing their doctoral degree, continue training as postdoctoral researchers for three to five years as a steppingstone to becoming an independent investigator. The task force found that although men and women rated themselves equally when it came to professional skill, men were significantly more confident that they could obtain a PI position and become tenured. The reported contributing factors to this disparity fall into two categories: family responsibilities and self-confidence.
The vast majority of married women have a full-time working spouse, whereas about half of married men have a spouse that works part-time or within the home. Moreover, among dual-career couples, women are more likely to make career concessions than men. Spending time with family, plans to have children, affordable child care, travel, and proximity to spouse’s work place were some of the considerations that were weighed more heavily by women, whereas salary was more important to men.
“Family considerations are a major, but not the only, deterrent to pursing an academic career,” said Orna Cohen-Fix, Ph.D., a corresponding author of the report and senior investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “An increase in the number of women postdocs who decide to pursue an advanced research position will translate, in time, to a greater representation of women in tenured faculty positions. Our findings suggest that the loss of talented women from the research track can be reduced by mentoring and a change in the scientific culture to accommodate the needs of both women and men who wish to combine family and scientific careers.”
Because women are more affected by family responsibilities, help during the transition from postdoc to tenured faculty — such as affordable, high-quality child care or the possibility to work more flexible hours — may encourage more women to stay in academic research, the study found. The task force report includes several recommendations that may help increase the retention of women in the biological and medical sciences, and the NIH intends to continue keeping a close watch on career development of junior scientists in general and women in particular.
The task force conducted four surveys of current and former researchers at the NIH, including independent investigators and staff scientists. It is the postdoctoral portion of the study that appears online on November 1 in EMBO Reports, at http://www.nature.com/embor.
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