Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

Lessons of the Leaky Pipeline

Premium

It's a situation familiar to many in science: within the first few years after graduate school, women begin to disappear from the field. For several years now, women have made up roughly half of all life sciences PhD recipients, yet they only comprise a small percentage of the upper ranks of academia — and women from minority backgrounds are nearly absent from those ranks.

Men do outnumber women in the upper echelons of academia, but it doesn't start out that way. In 2001, 36.5 percent of science and engineering doctoral degrees were awarded to women and that percentage was higher and nearing parity — 45.8 percent — for doctoral degrees in molecular biology, according to statistics from the US National Science Foundation. But, the gap between the number of men and women in the life sciences widens higher up in the academic ranks. In 2003, 9,000 full-time junior faculty members with doctorates in the life sciences were female and 11,100 were male, according to NSF. But only 12,400 senior faculty members were female whereas there were 30,700 male faculty members.

"The assumption, decades ago, was that if you want to improve the number of women in science, you get them degrees. But we're realizing that the word on the street is that academic careers are not compatible with some of the ambitions of both men and women, although the differential impact on women trying to navigate academic careers is higher than men because of some of the personal obligations and personal choices they want to make," says Catherine Didion, director of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

When it comes to the issues affecting women in the sciences, there is no one answer to account for all of the disparities, nor one that promises to resolve them all — and the issues are full of contradictions. Even those dedicated to finding the factors contributing to the wage gap between men and women and the "leaky pipeline" admit that a comprehensive picture is just beginning to emerge. What is also becoming increasingly clear is that the reason such a small proportion of female PhD recipients wind up in applicant pools for tenure-track positions is not simply a result of institutionalized gender bias that affects the hiring process, but also a result of how difficult the academic career path has become — though improvements are being made

In 1994, the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health held a workshop on women in biomedical careers, says the office's director, Vivian Pinn. During that meeting, the participants discussed what the major impediments were for women to succeed in careers in science. On that list were issues including mentors, family care-giving responsibilities, and differences in salaries and promotions. "It's been encouraging because we've continued to focus on these same issues, but also discouraging because here we are, 10 years later, and these are the same issues that we're hearing about," Pinn says. "I think the pipeline has improved — we are seeing women enter into PhD and doctoral programs at levels equal to, if not greater than, men. But where we're seeing the drop-off is in reaching top positions, or in some instances, how institutions are dealing with some of the dual responsibilities of career and family."

The phenomenon of women leaving science is a global one, though here we focus our attention on the US. We start off by taking a look at how the current climate in academia — with its unforgiving demand on researchers' time — combined with the unbending nature of the tenure track, and the current state of family policies, is not only forcing women to choose between career and family but also causing many young investigators, both men and women, to steer clear of academia altogether. In addition, we look at an area where women are making gains — in wages and in funding — as well as efforts to spread awareness of gender disparities and encourage institutes to change their policies.

"There are issues that need to be addressed that have to do with the structure of the career path that's been established with regard to the desire for children and what kind of career you want. The process has lengthened in terms of getting a secure academic job, so if you don't know [whether or not] you're going to have a permanent job until your late 40s, it might change your whole idea of which kind of career path you want to get on," the National Academy's Didion adds.
[pagebreak]
Spousal support

One of the root causes of the pipeline problem is the desire to have a family. The number of hours researchers on the tenure track are expected to log — averaging 50 or more per week — simply does not mesh with starting and maintaining a family. "Major academic health centers have become extremely competitive — to say they are money hungry is putting it mildly — and this translates into pressure on the faculty who are much more exploited than they were 30 years ago," says Phoebe Leboy, president of the Association for Women in Science. "Now you need three National Institutes of Health grants to get tenure and it has become increasingly difficult for anyone who wants to have a life."

Many researchers don't have the support at home that most academic organizational structures and policies assume that they do. In 2006, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences published the results of a major study that found that anyone lacking the support of a stay-at-home spouse is at a serious disadvantage in terms of climbing the academic career ladder and maintaining competitiveness. According to the study, about half of the spouses of male faculty work full-time while roughly 90 percent of the spouses of female faculty are employed full-time.

"I think that the challenges of balancing family and career still fall to a very great extent on women, although there are dangers in generalizing too much," says Claire Fraser-Liggett, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "In the 20 or so years that I've been in a leadership role, I have seen many women who are in the assistant professor phase of their career just suffer enormously with trying to do everything and do it well. I think that there is a tremendous sense of burn out. … [Women] can often times get to a point where they ask themselves if this really was what they wanted in life or feel like they're on a treadmill that is ever-accelerating and never have time to catch their breath."

A family

Last year, the progressive think tank Center for American Progress conducted a study to follow up on the National Academies' findings. Specifically, the center wanted to determine why women are more likely to leave academia than men. The data show that married women who already have children are 35 percent less likely to even embark on the tenure track than men who are married with children. And those who do are up to 27 percent less likely to achieve tenure than their male counterparts.

There is simply not enough flexibility in the pipeline, says Mary Ann Mason, study co-author and law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The rigidity of time caps and deadlines — such as a specific number of years that a postdoctoral position must start after graduate school, requirements for the completion of grant-funded projects, and, in particular, the tenure clock — fall right during the years when many people choose to start families.

"It's very hard for a graduate student or a postdoc to take any time off. Most 'A' universities have no policies at all for graduate students or postdocs in terms of maternity leave and other family responsibilities," Mason says.

Only 13 percent of Association of American Universities institutions offer maternity leave policies that cover grad students, postdocs, and other academic researchers. Forty-three percent offer only ad hoc paid leave or no financial support. But, this is an area that's made gains. Some -institutions, such as the University of California, Los Angeles, and Stanford University, now do provide maternity leave for graduate students, postdocs, and academic researchers, but the coverage often contains limitations on who qualifies and the length of the leave.

Faculty are better off. At 58 percent of AAU schools, faculty are entitled to a baseline policy of at least six weeks of restriction-free, paid maternity leave. In addition, many institutions and universities offer tenure-clock extensions or part-time tenure tracks, but these policies are sometimes vague or limited in scope.

"Roughly 20 percent of the -assistant professors that we surveyed for our study take advantage of the stop-the-clock policy, which is really important. But in reality what that does is add another year to the process. … Almost all R1 institutions have a stop-the-clock policy, but the variety is tremendous in terms of how they're interpreted and how people are encouraged to use them," says the National Academy's Didion. "The challenge becomes whether or not you have to request them ... Often there is a bias towards not using them if you have to use them in a way that can be seen as not being committed to your position."

In addition, Title IX of the US Education Amendments Act of 1972 requires academic institutes to treat pregnancy as a temporary disability and provide a reasonable period of unpaid, job-protected leave if the institute has no leave policy of its own. This applies to all employees supported by federal grants. But in a 2009 survey, Mason and her colleagues found that not all AAU institutions have clear-cut policies for maternity leave. One university said it does not provide unpaid leave to postdocs and six others did not know whether their institute had one or not.
[pagebreak]
"Most younger people — graduate students and postdocs — do not qualify under FMLA. ... Even if it isn't a clear-cut violation it's a technical violation, because the spirit of Title IX is that the doors have to be open," Mason says. "That's one of the major ways — from our data and other people's — that women are held behind, and it affects the wage gap down the line because … they're no longer on the tenure track, then ultimately you're ... less well paid."

Dropping down

Indeed, some experts say that it is not that women are dropping out of science, but rather they are "dropping down" or staying at a career altitude that is equivalent in salary and position to the assistant or adjunct professor level.

"I'm not totally convinced that that many women are leaving careers in the biological sciences. Instead, what we see is that they are not showing up in tenured and senior faculty positions or in supervisory positions, particularly in big pharma," says Leboy at the Association for Women in Science.

She says that if you look at the membership of biomedical societies, you'll still see women represented, though not in the highest echelons. "This argument that they are dropping out to have children is not entirely accurate — they are not being found in the high prestige positions in anywhere near the numbers they should be, but I wouldn't call it dropping out," she says.

"The glass ceiling has two components: implicit bias and how biomedical research careers are structured these days. It's not so much anti-women as it is anti-family, anti-having a life, if you want to be successful," Leboy adds.

Implicit bias and the wage gap

Leboy and her colleagues looked into implicit bias — in which individuals make decisions based on prejudices they are not aware they hold — by studying how seven major disciplinary societies in science and math select their prize and award recipients. The seven societies give out about 200 awards, and Leboy and her colleagues found that women are being recognized with teaching awards and with service awards to the societies and the discipline — but not for research and scholarship. It's a big difference, she adds. According to the study, in each society, between the non-scholarly awards and the scholarly awards, there's a roughly 50 percent drop in the number of women recognized. "It's not that the women are not in the discipline; they're just not getting the recognition for research and scholarship," Leboy says. "This has an effect on their jobs, their promotions, their recruitment to more high-prestige places, and everything associated with status and research."

Catherine Hill, director of research at the American Association of University Women, describes bias as the "unexplained portion" of the pay gap after all other factors — such as experience, training, education, and personal characteristics — are entered into the equation.

Here, women in the sciences are doing better than those in other fields. On average, an American woman makes 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, though that number is smaller for Hispanic and African-American women. According to a 2008 study by the US Census Bureau, women in the biological sciences make roughly 89 percent of the annual salary that men do and make up 53 percent of the workers in the field. Female computer scientists, software engineers, and IT and database managers make, on average, 86 percent of what their male counterparts take home every year and represent less than 25 percent of the workforce.

"The majority of men and women still associate science and math with men," Hill says. "Our data suggests that there may be some ways that employers are making assumptions about women and child rearing — that is not proven, but it is something we're led to believe as you look at a portion of the [wage] difference that doesn't get explained."
[pagebreak]
Some biases may be due to cultural conditioning and learned gender roles. There is a significant amount of sociological research indicating that when women step outside of what is considered the norm, they are viewed as aggressive or unpleasant. "Women who are competent in male fields are not viewed as likable — and likability is viewed as just as important as your skill set," Hill says. "When you have women behaving in a way that is not 'typical,' the normal response ... is discomfort. It may not be dislike, but a discomfort that may lead to a dislike. Women in many of these fields end up being in a double bind, because if they're too competent and assertive, then they're viewed as being not likable."

Hill suggests that the best way for women to battle the wage gap is to know where they stand in comparison to their colleagues. "Most people don't know if they're being paid fairly. They will share more about their sex lives than they will about their salaries in the workplace," she says, though she adds that "It's very hard to find something that's perfectly comparable — no two jobs are exactly the same."

One way to address the wage gap would be to have more transparency at the workplace. For the US federal government, transparency is a matter of policy and the gap is much smaller. Openness in the form of clearly regimented salary increases, it seems, could make a big difference, Hill says.

Promoting equality

When it comes to grants, there are discernible differences in the amount and frequency with which women are awarded funding. At the beginning of their careers, women actually receive more awards than men do. According to NIH and NSF accountability reports, pre-doctoral women receive more awards than men do — 63 percent more at NIH and 54 percent more at NSF. But at the -faculty level, women are awarded only

25 percent and 23 percent of NIH and NSF faculty grants, respectively. "We at the NIH have to try to look at what we're doing in terms of awarding funding to researchers and we've been able to show that success rates for first-time applicants are equal for men and women, but there are more -applications from men than women," Pinn says.

Men also appear to have a higher success rate on their grant renewal applications. "We don't know all the factors for that, it's something we hope is going to come out in our studies that we're currently funding," Pinn adds.

In addition, she says she hopes that these studies will address the growing concern that centers around men receiving larger awards than women do. However, Pinn notes that men and women receive the same percentage of what they ask for. "The best conclusion we can draw is that men are either applying for and getting the higher-dollar grants or that women are asking for less money than men," she says.

Pinn also co-chairs the NIH's working group Women in Biomedical Careers, which in 2009 awarded 14 grants totaling roughly $16.8 million over four years to fund a range of research projects aimed at nailing down the issues associated with challenges for women in the biomedical field.

While it is too early to know whether the data from these studies will have any impact, Pinn and her colleagues have been making slow and steady progress with small wins along the way. They have been able to secure an extension of the Early Stage Investigator status for researchers who have taken a leave of absence. There's also the Supplements to Promote Reentry into Biomedical and Behavioral Research Careers program, a trans-NIH initiative to help both women and men reenter research careers. In addition, the working group has amended NIH conference grant applications so that applicants are required to describe their plans for childcare at conference sites. These changes sound simple enough, but Pinn says they were hard won.
[pagebreak]
"I think we've made progress in terms of both women and men being more aware of the issues of family responsibilities and we've seen progress — maybe not total progress, but some — in terms of flexibility in the work settings," she says. "I hope that out of these causal factor grants, we will learn about new programs. We're also taking a look at all of our current programs to promote more gender equality."

Large-scale funding efforts such as NSF's Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers, or ADVANCE, program has invested more than $130 million in universities and colleges since 2001, to support and promote women in the academic sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. The NSF ADVANCE's Institutional Transformation awards support a range of programs such as career counseling and faculty advancement workshops. According to ADVANCE program director Kelly Mack, the initiative's Institutional Transformation awardees have reported that in addition to the benefits for women in terms of retention, recruitment, and promotion, the support has also led to an improved situation for the male faculty looking to balance work and life as well.

"One of the biggest accomplishments of the ADVANCE Program has been that most ADVANCE Institutional Transformation projects ultimately impact the entire institution, as opposed to only the [science, technology, and engineering] departments targeted by the NSF program," Mack says. "There is some evidence that peer institutions of ADVANCE grantees are voluntarily undertaking some institutional transformation activities without external funding. We see this as an indication that the ADVANCE Program is impacting the larger culture of science in a way that will make academic science and engineering careers more attractive to future generations of academicians."

The importance of mentors

The most commonly cited way to help women navigate the challenges of a career in science is through ready access to a mentor, whether through a one-on-one relationship with an established PI or through programs, such as the workshops hosted by the NIH Office on Women's Health. "We believe that learning how to negotiate the academic environment, the environment in industry, and even the environment at the NIH is crucial, and we feel that mentoring is an extremely important component of that — especially for women, where they can have unique instances or experience related to science or personal kinds of issues that have to be dealt with," Pinn says.

A recent NIH workshop focused on improving mentoring efforts for women, Pinn says. The agency brought in people who have active programs at their institutions and came up with recommendations for mentoring programs such as the need for adjusting mentoring programs to better suit women of color and the implementation of protocols or guidelines for accountability in the mentoring process. "Now we're looking to see what we can build out of the recommendations of that workshop," she says.

As effective as mentoring programs and online resources are, it is hard to match the effect of one-on-one mentoring, which can often plug a potential leak in the pipeline. Maryland's Fraser-Liggett says that she has on more than one occasion talked a young, stressed-out female researcher down from an attack of self-doubt that can result from the stresses of child rearing, harsh criticism from a grant review application, or just balancing it all.

"Science can be really tough. You're only as good as the last thing that you did, and in order to really be able to do well, you have to be able to develop a thick skin. ... It's just been my experience that a number of women have a somewhat harder time doing that," Fraser-Liggett says. "That's why I feel having mentors for young women is very important, because if you don't have somebody to talk to, to put things in perspective, it can be tremendously demoralizing. … But it's tough for both women and men alike, so if you really want to do this, you keep plugging along and take advantage of opportunities to do things well when you can because it's just too easy to dwell on the negative."

Facts & Figures:

14.8 percent of the full professors in the life sciences at top research universities are women.

National Academy of Sciences

The number of Life Sciences PhD recipients reached gender parity in 2006.

NIH ORWH

Women in the biological sciences earn roughly 89 percent
of what men do.

US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics

Married women with children are 30 percent less likely to secure a tenure-track position and 27 percent less likely to obtain tenure than their male counterparts.

Center for American Progress

Successful mentoring programs recognized by NIH's Office of Research on Women's Health:

The Work on Women in Science program at the University of North Carolina

The Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health program at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine

The Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine Program for Women at Drexel University College of Medicine

MentorNet, an online mentoring network platform

File Attachments
The Scan

For Better Odds

Bloomberg reports that a child has been born following polygenic risk score screening as an embryo.

Booster Decision Expected

The New York Times reports the US Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech SARS-CoV-2 vaccine this week for individuals over 65 or at high risk.

Snipping HIV Out

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports Temple University researchers are to test a gene-editing approach for treating HIV.

PLOS Papers on Cancer Risk Scores, Typhoid Fever in Colombia, Streptococcus Protection

In PLOS this week: application of cancer polygenic risk scores across ancestries, genetic diversity of typhoid fever-causing Salmonella, and more.