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Gender Bias and the Leaking Biomedical Pipeline


“Another day, another 70 cents!” Those were parting words from my mom every morning as she headed off to work at a cytogenetics lab, and I left for school. I didn’t really get it then – how could I when as a pre-teen my biggest problems were whether people were still wearing patent leather Airwalks? But now, as an adult, I get it.

From wage gaps and retirement income, to the underrepresentation of women in executive roles, gender inequality is a subject that permeates many conversations these days, and science is no exception. It seems that scientists, for whom objectivity is paramount, fall victim to the same biases. And yes, I do mean the rest of us, because research shows, that many of us have a gender bias. Maybe we can’t admit it, or maybe we don’t even know it, but there’s a good chance that lurking somewhere in our subconscious.

In fact, in 2012, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that when scientists were presented with applications for a lab manager position, the half who received applications from females rated the candidates significantly lower in terms of competence, hireability and whether they would want to mentor the applicant than those who received applications from males. The rub? With the exception of applicant names, the applications were in fact identical.

Implicit gender bias may contribute to the fact that, while approximately 50 percent of biomedical PhD, medical and dental students are female, women remain underrepresented in tenure-track faculty positions in the biomedical sciences, particularly at the associate and full professor levels.

Last week, at the “Symposium on Gender Bias in Scientific Publishing,” hosted by the Perelman School of Medicine, a group of men and women from across biomedical specialties and with diverse backgrounds, came together to address this issue. Specifically, the speakers and panelists, including senior editors from the scientific journals Cell, Stem CellScience and JAMA, highlighted barriers to publication of scientific research  as a roadblock to academic career advancement, and discussed strategies to overcoming this obstacle.

“Publishing research findings in high impact scientific journals is essential for academic promotion, particularly on the tenure-track,” said Sarah E. Millar, PhD, the Albert M. Kligman Professor and Vice Chair for Research in the department of Dermatology at Penn, who co-chaired the event with Anh Le, DDS, PhD, chair and Norman Vine Endowed Professor of Oral Rehabilitation in Penn Dental Medicine’s department of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery/Pharmacology. “Implicit gender bias in scientific publishing could impede a woman’s ability to have her papers accepted, which in turn could negatively impact her chances for career advancement.”

“Overall, in dentistry, medicine, and the basic sciences, the change in student gender distribution has not been matched among academic leaders—and the more senior the position, the greater the imbalance,” Le said.

Nobody knows better how implicit gender bias can affect a women’s success than keynote speaker Nancy Hopkins, PhD, who today admits that early in her career she wasn’t so sure about the whole “gender inequality” thing.

“When I arrived at MIT in the mid-70s, I had assumed gender disparities came to an end when women got the vote. What else was left? I wasn’t married, and I had no children. I was pretty sure there was nothing standing between me and my Nobel Prize,” joked Hopkins, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a long-time champion of gender equality in science. “But I soon came to realize that when a man and a woman made a similarly significant discovery, the man’s discovery was considered so much more significant. Sometimes the woman was even invisible, and her discovery was credited to a man. Could that really be true?”

Though Hopkins initially felt she could be the exception, she soon saw firsthand the undervaluation of women in her field. If MIT didn’t fix the problem, she said, she wouldn’t be able to continue being a scientist.

For months, Hopkins and her like-minded colleagues met in secret to discuss their experiences. For them, the secrecy was essential, for at the time, Hopkins says they felt their ideas for leveling the playing field seemed far too revolutionary. After secret conversations and meetings, the women faculty discovered that almost all had come to understand how gender can negatively impact women’s careers. Their insights, when documented, won them the support of the Dean of Science and then the President of MIT. With MIT’s administration behind them, Hopkins and her colleagues began the see dramatic change.

“Young people today take it for granted, but it was historic when MIT introduced on-site child care,” she said. “At first, we thought the problem might only occur at a few places, but the more we learned, the more we realized the problem was in many departments, and in many universities. Maybe all universities.”

In the decades that followed, the release of a public report about women in science from MIT, Hopkins and colleagues would learn that not only was it all universities, but it was nearly all fields, and businesses. Today, as a result of the efforts by pioneers in the fight for gender equality, there has indeed been some level of monumental upheaval.

For example, it’s now widely reported that companies who hire female executives tend to be more profitable, and paternity leave is becoming more common. Similar progress has also been made in scientific publishing. In fact, some of the leading scientific journals have special issues and blogs dedicated to celebrating diversity in science.

IMG_4767However, according to Marie Payne, a senior at Lower Merion High School who presented data she compiled on gender disparities in senior and corresponding authorship in five high-impact research journals, while the percentage of female senior authors increased from 2004-2009, it has unfortunately been largely static since then. Furthermore, Marie showed that the percentage of female senior authors remains lower than the percentage of women faculty in medical schools, indicating that women faculty do not experience the same success rates as men in this area.

To most, it’s clear that the pipeline toward academic career advancement in dentistry, medicine and the basic sciences has a female leaks women at several key stages. How to repair these leaks is an important issue for scientific editors, academic administrators, and faculty and trainees at all levels. Attendees at the Gender Bias Symposium suggested several possible approaches, including blinding studies so authors and genders remain anonymous to editing committees, and encouraging women to suggest other women as reviewers and opinion piece authors. However, the issue of women’s success in biomedical careers is clearly much bigger.

“Today is really a learning opportunity for me,” said Michael Parmacek, MD, chair of the department of Medicine, and director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Penn, who participated in a panel discussion during the symposium. “We’re trying to identify where the leaks are in the pipeline and create solutions to repair them. In recent years we’ve had equal numbers of male and female residents accepted, but this is still an issue and a priority for us. What we’re learning now is that we may need to focus on improving support for women in post-doc fellowships, which seems to be where the pipeline winnows.”

As Millar pointed out, maybe in another few decades there will be an “old girls club” just as there’s always been an “old boys club,” but the world of scientific publishing or any other area where biases exist may never get there – at least not without people willing to fight the good fight. Essentially, it takes a village because, as Hopkins said, “social change doesn’t happen because time passes. It happens because people make change.”


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