T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      M A R C H  –  A P R I L   2008



by Fran Pollner

Agents of Change: Discussing NIH initiatives to correct gender imbalances are (left to right) Joan Goldberg, executive director, American Society for Cell Biology; Jeremy Berg, NIGMS director; Joan Schwartz, assistant director, OIR; Valerie Florance, deputy director for extramural programs, NLM; Walter Schaffer, senior scientific advisor for extramural research; Raynard Kington, NIH deputy director; and panel chair Kathryn Zoon, director of intramural research, NIAID

If there is such a thing today as a post-feminist world, it’s not to be found just yet in much of the biomedical research arena, where various obstacles thwart the advancement of women scientists to commanding positions, such as department head at a research university or lab chief at NIH.

But rigorous documentation of attrition rates for women beyond the postdoctoral level has set the stage for designing and implementing systematic remedies, and large numbers of people in the field are determined to turn things around.

"This is not something we ought to be doing because it’s nice to do. It’s something we have to do" because the future of biomedical research depends on it, said NCRR Director Barbara Alving, opening a daylong conference here on "Best Practices for Sustaining Career Success" for women in biomedical research.

The military biomedical research sector, as well as successful businesses, "recognized this long ago" and have developed "innovative practices" to attract and retain women at the highest levels, Alving said, presaging several talks on the day’s agenda.

Framing the Issues: Numbers Talk

Women have become 50 percent of medical school applicants and graduates and they are 46 percent of assistant deans and 33 percent of associate deans—but only 12 percent of deans of U.S. medical schools, said keynoter Nancy Andrews, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, N.C., who upon her appointment published a piece in the November 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine entitled "Climbing Through Medicine’s Glass Ceiling."

Deans, Andrews observed, emerge not from the pool of associate deans but from department chairs, a far more elusive inner circle for women, who hold 8.5 percent of these positions. Although junior women tend to downplay gender bias as a major problem for women in academic medicine, citing work-family balance as the greatest challenge, marginalization rooted in gender bias is felt increasingly by senior women as they move up in the ranks, she said.

Andrews advocated relentless "nagging" to change the facts on the ground—like upping the numbers of women on speakers’ lists and search committees and removing administrators with poor track records in hiring and retaining women.

Data Miners: Timothy Ley and Phoebe Leboy

More numbers—documenting just how few women do move up in the ranks—were offered by Timothy Ley, associate director of basic science and professor of medicine at the Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, and Phoebe Leboy, president of the Association for Women in Science and professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine in Philadelphia.

At each step on the NIH grant-funding ladder, fewer women apply–and not because they are less successful at being selected, Ley reported. There is little difference among the three groups of degree-holders—Ph.D, M.D., and M.D.-Ph.D.—with the most dramatic falloff occuring at the late postdoctoral stage between the K23 and KO8 levels, when about half of the women applicants are lost; when the first RO1 application level is reached, the ratio of male to female applicants is 2–3:1, he said. "Among those who do apply, the success rates are identical . . . but women are leaving the academic medical career path at double and triple the rate of men." Ley observed that that path "was created by men for men."

"The objective evidence," Leboy concurred, "is that women score very well on grant applications." In 2006, there were more women than men in the top 10 percent fundable NIH grant applications, she said, but the other side of that story is that there are fewer grants per PI among women, fewer dollars per grant awarded women, a lower reapplication success rate for women, and a nearly complete absence of women on the "really big and increasingly popular center grants." The last item, she noted, reflects the nearly exclusive selection of men as PIs by the participating institutions.

Tracking the progress of women with Ph.D.s in biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, developmental biology, and neuroscience at academic health centers and research universities, Leboy reported the results of a survey of 58 institutions that in November 2007 had advertised faculty positions in these fields. Far fewer women applied than would be expected based on the percentage of women in the potential Ph.D. applicant pool.

For instance, although women hold 43 percent of Ph.D.s in biochemistry, they were only 17 percent of applicants for junior faculty positions in biochemistry departments; the statistics for cell and developmental biology were closer to 30 percent but well under the expected 48 and 52 percent. "Women are avoiding tenure-track faculty jobs," Leboy said, noting that this study did not address how many women were actually hired.

She noted that the "proportion of tenure-track and tenured women has reached a plateau of less than 60 percent of expectations and is now declining." These data, she said, support the finding that women are more likely to opt out at the point of transitioning beyond the postdoc stage, reported in the November 2007 issue of EMBO Reports.*

The question of why, however, remains, she added, noting that although the EMBO report suggests that women have less confidence, the "chilly climate" for women in academia may go further in explaining why "smart young women" are disinclined to pursue biomedical careers there. There are no data, she added, on how many of these women enter the private workforce.

In all arenas, it was mentioned throughout the conference, there are next to no data on minority women in science.

Camaraderie: (left to right) Kathryn Zoon, NIAID scientific director; Barbara Alving, NCRR director and conference chair, and Naomi Luban, chief of laboratory medicine, Department of Pediatrics, Children’s National Medical Center, Washington

Climate Change

Early last year, in response to a National Academies report on bias and barriers facing women in academic science and engineering, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni established the NIH Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers. This conference was the objective of one of the group’s 11 subcommittees.

NIH Deputy Director Raynard Kington, chair of the subcommittee on research on the efficacy of programs to reduce gender bias, observed that with the will to change, things can happen quickly, as was the case with the Director’s Pioneer Awards, part of the NIH Roadmap: None of the first-year awardees were women, but 46 percent of the second-year cohort were. The change was effected not by targeting women for awards but by making the process fairer, he said.

His subcommittee is canvassing programs across the country aimed at "transforming the culture" and has found that most of them are small, under five years old, and unevaluated for impact. NIGMS, he said, has issued an RFA to study interventions to promote biomedical research careers and their effectiveness.

Addressing the climate at home, Joan Schwartz, assistant director, OIR, and a member of several subcommittees aimed at recruiting, retaining, and advancing women at NIH, outlined some of the programs under consideration or underway:

expanding access to childcare both on and off campus

providing a tenure-track investigator or PI with a temporary lab manager during times of needed extended leave

recruitment of dual-career couples, facilitated through a regional consortium, of which NIH is a founding member

encouraging teleworking

creation of a trans-NIH mentoring committee; training PIs in mentoring skills and senior investigators, postdocs, and graduate students in leadership skills

conducting focus groups among NIH women to learn how to promote taking the first step beyond the postdoc level

Asked for some statistics on women lab chiefs at NIH, Schwartz noted that the percent has increased over the last 10 years—from 4 to 16 percent.

She issued an oft-repeated invitation that attendees "please send in any thoughts you have." To do so, write to <womeninscience@nih.gov>.


*"Falling Off the Academic Bandwagon," by members of the NIH Postdoctoral Fellows Subcommittee of the Second Task Force on the Status of NIH Intramural Women Scientists


How Does Industry Do It?

Anticipating a serious shortage of skilled employees, private sector companies in the late 1980s and early 1990s decided that hiring more women—and, especially, retaining them—would be a solution and key to future success, according to Asif Dhar, biomedical informatics practice leader at Deloitte Consulting in McLean, Va., and Jo Ellen Helmer, a partner at Ernst & Young LLP in Chicago.

Deloitte started the Women’s Initiative in 1993, focusing on two main aspects: providing a network and mentorship for women throughout their careers and allowing for a nonlinear progression of careers. Employees can customize and adjust the pace, workload, location schedule, and role they would like to play in the company according to the stage of life they are in.

Flexibility is also the key in keeping women in the workforce at Ernst & Young. Flexible work hours, mentoring, and networking are essential, and such items as longer maternity leave have greatly added to the satisfaction of women, Helmer said. In fact, the models originally developed for women have been adopted for the workforce in general and have proved to increase overall productivity.

Both speakers emphasized the importance of measuring the success of the program and making senior staff accountable. At Ernst & Young, it is impossible to reach maximum points (and therefore maximum pay bonuses) if the "inclusiveness" goals have not been achieved.

—Christiane Jost

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