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The Skew in the Lab

Elite male faculty members in the life sciences train fewer women than other faculty members, according to an analysis from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Jason Sheltzer and Joan Smith in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

Sheltzer and Smith examined publicly accessible data gathered from university directories and faculty websites about the makeup of biology labs at leading US academic institutions.

Overall, they found that male faculty members tend to have fewer female graduate students and postdocs than female faculty members. And elite male faculty members — those who receive Howard Hughes Medical Institute funding, have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, or received a major career award — trained fewer women than other male faculty members.

For instance, they report that, on average, male HHMI investigators have 31 percent female postdocs, while male lab heads who were not HHMI investigators employed 38 percent female postdocs. By contrast, female HHMI professors employed 48 percent female postdoc, while female lab heads not funded by HHMI employed 46 percent female postdocs.

The biggest gap, they note, was in the labs of male Nobel Prize winners.

As such elite labs serve as the talent pool from which assistant professor positions are filled, this skew, Sheltzer and Smith say, may in part account for why only 18 percent of full professors are women while more than half of graduate students in the life sciences are female.

Sheltzer tells Nature that this doesn't mean that someone running a lab with fewer than 50 percent female staff is sexist.

"We do think that maybe this shows the need for elite faculty members to make a stronger, more proactive effort to reach out to talented women," he says.