A recent editorial in Nature Neuroscience explores gender disparities in senior academic positions in science, noting the difficulties women face when climbing the academic ladder. Despite a growing number of women in the workforce (women make up about 47% of the overall workforce), the proportion of women employed in academic positions is low, about 31%. Women make-up only about 19% of tenured US National Institutes of Health (NIH) staff and only about 18% of tenured academics in the European Union. While stereotypes likely influence this disparity, there are more factors at play; indeed, “a fundamental restructuring of the way academic science is conducted” may be necessary to allow women equal opportunities to thrive in the male-dominated field.
At the undergraduate level, women and men are about even: women now account for 56% of all science and engineering undergraduate degrees. Even at the graduate level women are on par with men, with women receiving 63% and 54% of NIH and National Science Foundation predoctoral awards, respectively. So what happens in the transition from the postdoctoral level into the academic and faculty level that causes women to be burdened with this great disadvantage? In short, life circumstances.
Children are a large factor; pregnancy, birth, and recovery all require time and energy, and subsequent childcare issues can interfere with productivity and availability. Confidence may play a role as well. In a traditionally male-dominated profession, women may be less likely to apply for funding and request less money than their male counterparts.
So what can be done? The author suggests a number of changes in the structure and function of scientific academia, including encouraging part-time work, rewarding smaller labs, encouraging collaborations and lab-sharing, and a complete overhaul of how scientists are evaluated and rewarded. These recommendations are just a few of the many changes that can benefit women in science and, in turn, the entire field of science.