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Study: Top labs run by men tend to hire fewer women

(Creative commons licensed from Argonne National Laboratory on Flickr.)

As we hear seemingly every day, there are far too few women in tech jobs at Silicon Valley giants.They're underrepresented in engineering fields like transportation, aerospace, and petroleum. And while it isn't news that a gender divide exists in scientific laboratories too, a recent study shows it may be even worse in labs run by the most elite male scientists.

paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported recently that in labs run by top-ranked male biological scientists, women made up 36 percent of postdoctoral researchers and 47 percent of graduate students. But that was significantly less than in labs run by female investigators, where women made up 46 percent of postdocs and 53 percent of grad students. 

The differences were even more stark, however, in the labs run by male scientists who had won prestigious prizes or funding. For instance, the study reported that in labs headed up by men who were funded by the highly regarded Howard Hughes Medical Institute, just 31 percent of postdocs were women. That compares with labs run by women who got the same funding, where 48 percent of the same trainees were women.

Especially when combined with the results of a study published Wednesday, which surveyed 142 male and 516 female young scientists working in field sites and found high rates of reported sexual harassment and sexual assault, the recent study adds to the troubling portrait of the obstacles women scientists potentially face in their careers.

The idea for the study, which was co-authored by Jason Sheltzer, a graduate student in cancer biology at MIT, and Joan Smith, a software engineer at Twitter, was sparked after one of their mutual friends got a job in a lab at Princeton University. “She found out she was going to be the first female grad student this professor had had in 20 years,” Sheltzer said. The concept was startling enough to Sheltzer and Smith that they decided to examine the issue.

To do their research, the two combed through laboratories’ Web sites and departmental directories to pull together biographical information on the grad students, postdocs and faculty who work in 39 departments at 24 top-ranked research institutions in the U.S. In total, it examined the staffs of 2,062 faculty members. 

Sheltzer is careful to say the data is not proof of conscious gender bias on the part of male researchers, however much the numbers may be skewed. While there could be very real discrimination going on, Sheltzer notes that it could also be that women choose to apply less often to labs run by men, or to the elite labs run by men.

That analysis was more difficult because applying for laboratory jobs, he says, is “incredibly informal.” Students don’t typically go through a human resources department or a formal application process; rather, they usually just send a professor an e-mail and say they’re interested in working with them. “It’s very easy for the faculty member to respond to the e-mail or delete it,” Sheltzer says. Because of that, “many applications just end up in the recycle bin.”

The study, which has been praised by a number of high-ranking scientists, also looked at the link between the gender gap in the field’s top labs and the effect it could have on women’s careers. Because these elite labs serve as gateways to assistant professor jobs, Sheltzer and Smith write, the disproportionate number of men in these labs means the faculty pipeline is tipped toward men from the very start. “That demonstrates to some degree the insular nature of academic science and the hiring process,” Sheltzer says. But “it also allows a sort of self-perpetuating cycle” that puts women at a disadvantage.

Even if the numbers aren’t proof of outright discrimination, Sheltzer says their findings should act as a wake-up call that “elite male faculty members should do a better job of reaching out to talented students”—whether they’re male or female. It could also prompt more awareness of the informality of the application process, which could allow room for bias. “You avoid the cumbersome bureaucracy,” he says. “But you really introduce the ability for professors to not give everyone a fair shot.” 

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