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Are the Stars Sexist?

July 1, 2014

Women are earning half of the doctorates in the life sciences these days, theoretically a major success for those wanting to diversify the faculties of STEM departments. But that success has never extended to the faculty ranks.

A study released Monday suggests that part of the problem may be found in looking at who is hired as graduate students and postdocs to work in faculty-led labs. Men are less likely than are women to hire female graduate students and postdocs. And of particular concern, men who have achieved elite status by virtue of awards they have won -- in other words, the men whose labs may be the best launching pads for careers -- are the least likely to hire women who are grad students and postdocs.

The research appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the paper, Jason Sheltzer, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Joan C. Smith, of Twitter, examined the laboratories of 39 departments in 24 of the highest-ranked research institutions in the United States. They then explored the share of men and women hired for various roles in professors' laboratories. The overall numbers follow:

Employment of Women in Life Sciences Laboratories at Top Research Universities

  Female Graduate Students Female Postdocs
Overall pool 49% 39%
Labs run by male professors 47% 36%
Labs run by female professors 53% 46%

While those data show that female professors are more likely than male professors to hire women for their laboratories, the gaps are notable, but not huge. They get much larger when looking at various categories of "elite" professors.

For instance, only 31 percent of the postdocs hired by male professors funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (a prestigious and influential funding source) were women. But 38 percent of the postdocs hired by men who were not supported by the HHMI were women.

When the male professors who are members of the National Academy of Sciences hired graduate students, 41-42 percent of those getting the positions were women, while 47-48 percent of those hired by non-members who are male were women.

In both those comparisons, women who were in the elite groups were as likely to hire women as were those women who were not in the elite group. So while being elected to the National Academy decreases the chances of a man in life sciences hiring women as postdocs or grad students, it has no such impact for women who are elected.

The pool studied also included 24 Nobel laureates, of whom 22 were men. Those men led labs where women made up 24 percent of the postdocs and 36 percent of the grad students. While the paper says that the two female laureates don't make up a large enough pool to draw conclusions, in both of their labs, female trainees (grad students and postdocs combined) outnumbered male trainees.

So does this mean that the men who rise to top positions in the life sciences at top universities are, on average, sexist?

In an interview, Sheltzer said that there are two primary explanations that suggest themselves. One is that there "could be self-selection on the part of female trainees," in that, for whatever reason, they are not applying to work for the male professors whose careers have been the most successful.

But he also said it was "possible that some elite male faculty members could be biased -- either consciously or unconsciously."

One explanation Sheltzer said the research suggests is not plausible is that the female candidates for traineeships lack the ability of their male counterparts. He noted that, at every level, female professors who are making major breakthroughs in their research are doing so in labs that hire women.

"We saw all these top labs led by women, by women who are making fundamental discoveries," Sheltzer said. "And they are doing it in labs that aren't 80 percent men. The existence of these labs, and of elite women hiring women, is a strong argument that women are just as capable."

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