Gender Bias in Academic and Medical Research

Studies have shown gender bias in nearly all aspects of work in academic and medical research institutions.

In your opinion, How can institutions address and correct these biases and what are the costs of failures to do so?

4 Responses
Mark W. Kline, MD
January 6, 2016

By 2012, 57 percent of U.S. pediatricians and 73 percent of pediatric residents were women; yet, pay disparities between women and men persist, and women continue to be underrepresented in academic leadership. No institution that fails to support and foster the career development of more than half of its professional members can have any hope of achieving preeminence.

Change requires leadership. Ensuring that hiring and compensation policies and practices are applied equally is a basic issue of fairness. Promotion and tenure policies must provide flexibility to accommodate work-life balance challenges and non-traditional career paths women sometimes follow, with a clear acknowledgement that both genders contribute to any vibrant institution. In 2009, the Department of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital had 590 faculty members, but never a woman chair or vice chair. Through a conscious effort to diversify leadership ranks, the department now has 1,093 faculty members and 10 vice chairs, seven of them women.

We are on the cusp of a golden age of innovation that will transform pediatric health care worldwide, driven largely by the women in residency training programs and junior faculty ranks today. The privilege of leading this transformation will fall to institutions that value and embrace workforce diversity at every level.

Molly Carnes, MD, MS
January 6, 2016

Anything that explicitly or implicitly constrains women from full participation and advancement means that only half the talent pool has the opportunity to solve problems facing health and biomedical sciences. To address and correct the impact of gender bias, institutions should recognize that stereotypes about men and women have deeply rooted, powerful and generally invisible effects on how we interpret and evaluate information from men and women and on our own behaviors.

Several steps institutions can take include: (1) Make gender equity a visible priority. (2) Help all organization members realize the pervasiveness of the problem, acknowledge we all contribute to its perpetuation and that addressing gender bias requires ongoing commitment, vigilance and action. (3) Ensure pay equity by undertaking intermittent exercises that identify systematic pay differences and install triggers for automatic reviews. (4) Convene groups of women within departments and hear their issues. (5) In descriptors for positions or awards, use specific language, such as “an investigator who has held an R01” rather than “independent investigator“ or other terms that may favor men. (6) To select leaders, implement search and screen committee processes and review institutional awards, endowed chairs, speakers lists, etc. to ensure women are included in appropriate numbers.

Approaching gender bias as a habit is a useful strategy. As with other unwanted habitual behaviors such as smoking, breaking the gender bias habit is a multistage process.

Linda Cripe, MD
January 6, 2016

Unfortunately, we’re having the same conversations about the advancement of women in academic medicine that we had 25 years ago. I have had the unique opportunity to understand this issue as my husband also works in pediatric academic medicine. Over the years, I’ve witnessed countless examples of workplace gender inequity. The majority did not appear intentional, but that does not make it acceptable. Historically, I remained silent for as much as gender bias held me back it helped him advance, which was good for our family.

A solution needs to be aggressive and will not be easy. Women have unique workplace pressures that result in significant attrition. It is difficult for any individual to work 70 hours per week and appropriately care for their families. Round-the-clock and sick daycare need to be easily available. Meetings frequently start at 7 a.m. or 5 p.m. — hours that are hard on young families. Additionally, there is a shortage of female mentors for women starting their careers. Senior women need to be encouraged to give back.

Women must become outspoken voices for change. They must not fear the consequences of speaking out, only the consequences of remaining silent.

Stephen Ceci, PhD
January 6, 2016
Wendy M. Williams, PhD
January 6, 2016

Claims of gender bias in hiring, promotion, and remuneration are so ingrained that university policies are predicated on combating it. But is this view currently valid? We and our colleagues documented that some gender differences exist that benefit male scientists; however, the academic landscape is changing rapidly, and women and men are now treated comparably in most domains.

Four decades ago, women accounted for less than 1 percent of professors in academic engineering. Today they represent roughly 25 percent of assistant professors, and given comparable promotion and tenure rates, numbers of female senior professors should increase. Similar growth of women scientists over the past 40 years is seen in all traditional male domains – physics, chemistry, geosciences, mathematics and economics. More women focus on life sciences, humanities and social sciences, and among those who earn PhDs in these fields, women are less likely than men to apply for tenure-track academic jobs. However, when women do apply they are offered jobs at a higher rate: In five experiments, we demonstrated that 872 faculty members at 371 institutions preferred to hire a woman over an identically-qualified man. These findings are supported by hiring data, which show women who apply for academic posts are advantaged over men.