Last month, two senior cell biologists at the prestigious Salk Institute brought a lawsuit against their employer for systematic pay discrimination and for condoning an “old boys club” culture that marginalized female scientists. These days, charges of pay disparities and even gender-hostile work environments are unsurprising; media accounts of both are ubiquitous. What’s so deeply troubling, though, about the charges against Salk is that they come at a time when the number of women graduating with STEM is growing. This year, women earned more than half of the 13,000 doctorate degrees awarded in life sciences alone–the latest evidence that Title IX, the 1972 law which promised equal educational opportunities for women, is creating an upward trend.
As research, lawsuits and personal anecdotes mount, it’s apparent that the increase in numbers of women in STEM has not resulted in greater equality in careers. Even more disturbing is that the disparities and hostilities many female career scientists encounter are continuations of circumstances that began when they were students. In short, Title IX cannot be viewed in isolation from its impact on women as they continue in the professions.
To ensure women’s ability to reach their full potential in STEM fields, academic institutions and research funding sources, as well as national professional associations, must smooth pathways that are currently riddled with inequities.
There is ample data to illustrate the connection between what happens in universities and what happens after graduation. Consider the highly regarded, double-blind Yale study in which participating science faculty at universities across the country rated nearly identical student applications. The only difference was the names that accompanied the materials. Faculty were less likely to offer mentoring to applicants whose names were associated with being female. Those same faculty were more likely to rate presumptive male applicants as significantly more competent and “hirable,” and to offer male students bigger salaries. This bias may explain one researcher’s findings that in prestigious, career launching labs run by National Academy of Sciences members and Nobel Prize Laureates, men are up to 90% more likely to be awarded postdoctoral positions than women.
Even women scientists who get jobs at elite institutions are likely to begin at an economic and professional disadvantage. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that, on average, women biomedical researchers get paid less than half of what their male counterparts get paid to launch their careers. The same research team found leading, NIH-funded research institutes had the largest discrepancies in startup packages offered to women, setting them up to operate with less funding, less lab equipment and, therefore, reduced professional recognition for life.
Race can be a compounding factor. The National Science Foundation’s own data shows that women of color have been consistently underrepresented at advanced education and career stages in most STEM fields. A report from the Medical Foundation at Health Resources in Action traced discrepancies in career advancement for scientists of color all the way back to elementary school education and found that mentoring opportunities and access to resources in universities are difficult to obtain. As Joan Bennett, a Distinguished Professor of Plant Biology at Rutgers, put it, “Men who are in power and giving out money don’t understand race and gender” and are less likely to show commitment to including women of any race or ethnicity in their work.
Ending practices that perpetuate career-long imbalances must begin with eliminating discrimination in science training. The most direct course correction would be for the federal government to proactively tackle the issue by harnessing the power of its funding efforts. There is fierce competition among schools for the $25 billion that federal agencies dole out each year to support research. How quickly might the playing field be leveled if high quality projects that guaranteed equal opportunity received priority? However, given the current administration’s stark failure to prioritize gender equality, this seems depressingly unrealistic. But the failure of the government to act should encourage individual and foundational funders to step up.
Perhaps a more practical solution lies with academic institutions and professional associations, which often act as accrediting bodies, committing to take concrete actions. To begin with, academic institutions must pledge to evenly distribute support among students, as too much anecdotal evidence shows that senior-level, male faculty have never trained a female or a minority scientist. Withholding institutional support to those scientists whose records indicate bias is in order.
In science fields, professional associations have tremendous clout which they could exercise to address bias. For example, last fall, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine convened a wonderful, yearlong series of public workshops to develop strategies that address sexual harassment, including gender hostile climates in academia. Others should follow suit to promote inclusion, including denying memberships and other recognitions to programs that fail to make progress toward ending documented disparities.
Evelynn Hammonds of Harvard University, who studies the history of science, notes that “the race/gender science divide is one of the greatest threats to equality that we face today.” As the divide harms individual victims, the limited research workforce available to foster scientific innovation injures us all.
More inclusion makes for better science. To get there, female scientists like the Salk cell biologists will and should continue to sue to enforce their right to equal pay and bias-free work environments. But universities, their funders, and the professional organizations whose approval they seek must begin by addressing discrimination early in career paths. The better science that we all deserve demands that we address discrimination in schools.
Anita Hill, a noted leader in combating discrimination, is Of Counsel to Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a leading, national plaintiffs law firm, and also a professor at Brandeis University.