Gender bias in academic science persists — from start-up to senior faculty

Female medical faculty less likely to be promoted, given fewer dollars to start labs, new studies find
Gender bias in science illustration
Women in academic science and medicine are less likely to be promoted to full professor and receive less support to launch their laboratories, two new studies released Tuesday found. Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

Updated Sept. 16, 2015 with Fred Hutch-specific start-up funding information.

It’s been a banner year for sexist science in the news.

A Nobel laureate told an audience of female science journalists in June that women don’t belong in the lab. A prominent scientific journal rejected a manuscript in the spring by two female scientists on gender disparities in academia because their paper lacked male authors (the journal later removed the responsible editor and reviewer and re-reviewed the paper). Another prominent journal ran a column this summer that advised a postdoc concerned about her adviser’s unwanted stares to “put up with it, with good humor if you can.”

These blatant examples from high-profile sources were met with swift criticism and were all at least partially corrected after the fact. But, as two studies published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association illustrate, there’s a widespread and ongoing problem of gender disparity in academic science.

One of those studies — looking at more than 90,000 academic physicians working at U.S. medical schools  — showed that men are more likely to be promoted to the position of full professor than their female counterparts, even when their experience and productivity are equal. 

The other, which included New England-area research institutes only, found that women joining those organizations as new faculty members received lower levels of start-up funding to launch their independent research than male junior faculty — on average, less than half the amount the men received.

These new findings are especially troubling in the context of the traditional academic trajectory of women, said Dr. Gary Gilliland, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center president and director, who was not involved in either study.

Students enrolling in and graduating from medical school and graduate programs in biology are about equally split between men and women, Gilliland said. But women are underrepresented among faculty members at universities and other research institutes — and those are the scientists who generally lead research teams. The study released Tuesday, which was led by researchers at Harvard Medical School, found that women make up 33 percent of academic medical faculty overall but only 17 percent of full professors.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges at any institution. How do you make sure you’re providing adequate support for women?” Gilliland said.

Gilliland is proud that women make up 40 percent of the full members at Fred Hutch (the equivalent of full professors at universities), but recognizes that the Hutch — and academic science overall — still has work to do to reach gender equality. “The thing I’d like to focus on here at the Hutch is how do we get to 50 percent [female faculty]? And what are the issues that constrain that? I’m not sure I know all the answers to that, but there are ways that we can try to understand it,” he said.

The many roads to inequality

It’s not news that there are gender differences across many aspects of science, said Harvard Medical school physician and health economist Dr. Anupam Jena, who led the study on gender disparity among research physicians. Previous studies have identified that women in academic science and medicine have lower salaries, fewer publications and are less likely to hold leadership positions than men.

But the Harvard study captured measures of research productivity such as years of experience, publications, grant funding and participation in clinical trials that could play into women’s career advancement — any measure they could think of other than blanket discrimination — and stripped them away.

When they did, they found that all else being equal, a female academic physician was about 13 percent less likely to be a full professor than her male counterpart, Jena said. That disparity held up across all types of institutes, including those top-ranked as teaching hospitals by U.S. News & World Report, and across nearly all medical specialties.

For their study, Jena and his colleagues drew from a database of nearly 1 million U.S. doctors collected by the medical social media network Doximity. That dataset included more than 90,000 physicians working at universities and other academic organizations.

Like past studies, theirs found that the female academic physicians on average had fewer publications, were less likely to have conducted a clinical trial or to have an NIH grant. This lower overall research productivity could be due to confounding factors like lower start-up funding, lack of mentorship or interruptions to work from having children, Jena said.

But their study did show something new: “Once you equalize the playing field and take men and women who are equally productive in terms of research, it still appears to be the case that men are promoted to full professor more often than women are. So it does definitely suggest that there’s some discrimination going on that needs to be addressed,” Jena told Fred Hutch News Service.

Jena hopes academic leaders will follow suit by looking into their institutes’ own promotion practices.

“When that information is more transparent, I think there’s an opportunity at the higher levels to ensure that this discrimination doesn’t occur,” he said. “Transparency is probably key to all this.”

Disparities in dollars

The other JAMA study on gender disparities was led by Boston-based Health Resources in Action, which helps match private philanthropists with medical research in need of funding. As part of the application process for early-career researchers, the organization asks applicants to list the amount of money received from their home institution to start their research labs, also known as a “start-up package,” said HRiA’s Dr. Robert Sege.

“We began to just notice there was a difference” between the start-up funding levels reported by men and women, said Sege, who led the study and who oversees the grant process at HRiA. So they analyzed 219 applications that came from male and female junior faculty from 55 different New England institutes.

They found that the average male applicant reported start-up funding of $889,000. The average female faculty member’s start-up package: $350,000.

“It was completely a shock to me about how big the difference was,” Sege said. “This is how people get started in their scientific careers. The fact that men have a median over twice as high as women at similar points in their careers was really quite surprising.”

Although their study was small and only included organizations from one area of the country, Sege believes these trends will likely hold true in larger studies. New England is a large biomedical research hub that attracts scientists from all over the world, Sege said: “I couldn’t think of any reason why this would be a big difference in New England if it didn’t represent a national trend.”

In the years between 1999 and 2012 (the most recent year complete data was available), the average start-up funding amount given to the 14 female laboratory-based junior faculty hired at Fred Hutch was 81 percent the average amount the 32 male early-career faculty hired in that period, according to information from the Fred Hutch finance department.

The closest comparison to the Hutch’s faculty in the HRiA study were the basic scientists, Sege said. Female basic science researchers in Sege’s study received on average 60 percent of the start-up package the men were given.

Sege’s study wasn’t able to address the reasons behind the large funding disparity, but Fred Hutch cell biologist Dr. Sue Biggins suspects that negotiation is to blame.

“Start-ups are often negotiated and some women will be less likely to ask for as much,” she said.

Others have proposed similar reasoning behind salary differences between male and female scientists. That’s part of the reason that Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division, for which Biggins serves as associate director, has a different policy for both start-up funding and salaries. In Biggins' division, start-up funding is based simply on a list of necessary resources provided by the incoming faculty, Biggins said, and salary is based solely on title.

“We eliminate a lot of the negotiation issues, which reduces potential disparities,” she said.

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Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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