Gender bias on both sides of scientific research

A disturbing new study from researchers at Yale University was released this week in PNAS, reporting that gender bias is still pervasive in science and the workplace. An identical application for a laboratory manager position was given to 127 senior faculty members at a number of research universities, the only difference being that half of the applications contained a male name, while in the other half the applicant’s name was female. Across the board supervisors (male and female alike) ranked the ‘male’ application as more competent, more hireable, and stated that they would be more willing to supervise this candidate. Even more striking was the pay gap that existed between the recommended wages for the male and female applicants, a difference of roughly $3,700 starting salary. This is representative of the reported 23% average earnings difference between men and women in the workplace.

Despite efforts for equal opportunity and the eradication of sexism from science, this study clearly demonstrates that there are significant lingering differences in the perception of male and female applicants and their competence based solely on gender. These findings are particularly disturbing as the job was for an entry-level research position, suggesting that there is a bias against women even trying to get their foot in the door in science. The gender disparity in tenure-track professorships has previously been explained with similar rationales as those used to justify the dearth of women in executive suite positions in finance or industry, namely differences in life choices or a lingering male-domination from previous generations. However, now there is clear evidence that women are discriminated against from the start of their careers, making it far more likely that they will drop out of the profession, and thus perpetuating the gender imbalance in science, particularly at the higher end of the career ladder.

Gender bias in science isn’t just present in a lack of professional opportunities; women are frequently excluded from being subjects in research studies, particularly those involving the brain or behavioral traits. Women can be ‘difficult’ subjects as anatomically our brains differ in size from males, and hormonal fluctuations can affect chemical reactions to pharmaceutical challenges used in experiments. Instead of pursuing and exploring these differences though, females subjects are often omitted from both human and animal research. Results from male participants are then applied to females post-hoc, however this method is far from perfect as these very differences in behavioral and biological performance make extrapolations imprecise and potentially invalid.

For example, a study published earlier this year in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research reported on the differing effects of heavy alcohol consumption and recovery on the brain in men and women. Females appear to be more sensitive to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol on the brain, particularly in the frontal lobe, with a greater proportionate reduction in white matter volume than men with every additional drink. Conversely, male alcoholics show a greater decrease in volume in the corpus callosum (neuron tracts that connect the left and right hemispheres) related to the duration of heavy drinking. Fortunately, abstaining from alcohol was linked to recovery of white matter in both genders, with longer periods of abstinence associated with greater recovery in each region. However, men did not exhibit this trend with less than one year of sobriety, while women experienced neurogenesis only within the first year. While these distinctions between women and men are subtle ones, they are significant and could be related to differences in behavioral ability or possible treatment outcomes.

Ignoring female subjects in research studies biases results and can hinder progress in the advancement of clinical treatments. Similarly, dissuading or not adequately supporting women in their own research endeavors undoubtedly handicaps scientific progress by limiting the intellectual pool of talent. Reports of women being naturally ‘bad’ in science or mathematics have been overwhelming refuted and lingering prejudices, even unintentional ones, hurt not only the individual but the field of science as a whole.

(Thanks to Adam Levy and Ruth Watkinson for the gender bias article.)

Learning from our students

Having just conducted my first round of undergraduate supervisions (similar to an intensive tutoring or teaching assistant session), I have a greater amount of respect for an article published in Science back in June that has been making the rounds in academic discussion forums. In it, researchers conclude from both subjective interviews with students and faculty supervisors, as well as through objective reviews of student research reports, that graduate students who teach or supervise undergraduates come away with better research and analytical skills than those who do not.

This finding is at first counter-intuitive and flies in the face of accepted dogma that students who teach are taken away from their own research and laboratory time, and therefore cannot produce as much or as thorough work as those who do not. However the authors of the report, led by Dr. David Feldon at the University of Virginia, have done a thorough job vetting this claim by objectively assessing graduate students’ research proposals on the quality of their experimental design, hypothesis testability, and general research skills. Based on an empirical set of criteria, the authors of the study determined that students who pursued teaching as well as research assistantships had better research and study design skills than those who did not.

As my fellow graduate students and I can attest, teaching undergraduates takes a significant amount of time, effort, and brain power, all resources that would more preferably be spent (both according to ourselves and our supervisors) on our groundbreaking and earth shattering research. However, in accordance with Dr. Feldon’s report, teaching undergraduates is not without its advantages, though some of the benefits I have experienced are somewhat harder to empirically define.

In a PhD we all too often become absorbed in our own niche research, convinced that it is the most imperative and fascinating topic there is to study. If we did not we would most likely drop out. However, it also means that the articles, discussions, work, patients, and results we see are all geared towards this small facet of our respective subjects, which are at times far away from the more general concerns of the field. Tutoring or supervising undergraduates can bring us back into the larger discussion of our disciplines, reminding us of the history and background that predates our own work. It also provides an opportunity to review some of the seminal papers that we may now take for granted but were groundbreaking at the time of their release. And lastly, it reminds us of information we had learned during our own undergraduate tenures, knowledge and analytical skills that are essential in the wider scope of our fields but that might have been forgotten or discarded in favor of our own passions.

This all happened to me in my first tutoring sessions. I was at first overwhelmed with the information the students were expected to learn and resentful of the distraction from my work. Fortunately, over time I was able to recognize much of the material as familiar and even attempted to provide my own spin on it, combining the fundamentals of the lectures with offshoots from my research. However, it was certainly a humbling reminder of just how much there is I do not know about the brain. I was also impressed by the knowledge and intellect of the students themselves, some of whom I have no doubt are vastly more intelligent than myself. More than anything though, reviewing this material and having to master it all well enough to later disseminate it to others reminded me of just how interesting and exciting some of these topics are, and made me aware of connections in systems pertaining to my own research that I had neglected to make.

While teaching certainly does take up vast quantities of time, it also provides an invaluable medium to refresh us on essential material, to review our field with new eyes, and to make us truly learn the information so that we are later able to provide guidance for others. It is also an important exercise in reminding us of just how little we know, and how seemingly “simple” questions can be far more complex than some of the more nuanced “expert” queries.

What it really means to get a PhD

Being part way through the first year of my own PhD program, I probably shouldn’t open my blog with a summary of critiques of the system. However a series of articles recently published in Nature, as well as the daily struggles, doubts and insecurities my friends and I frequently face and lament, makes me wonder about the shrewdness of this path that we have chosen.

Most notably, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of PhD candidates and degrees awarded in the last 15 years, coupled with a simultaneous dearth of jobs available in academia and other markets. According to Cyranoski et al. in the April 21st issue of Nature, there has been a 40% rise in the number of science doctorates earned worldwide since 1998. However, it should be noted that a majority of those have come out of China, which has actively and enthusiastically encouraged the doctorial boom, increasing PhD production by nearly 80% since the mid-90s. Fortunately, the demand and market for these positions in China is still high, fostering this culture of higher learning and expertise. But back in the US, the second highest producer of doctorates, the supply far outreaches the demand for academic positions.

Universities are no longer offering as many tenure track positions (which is a debate and system needing reform all on its own), and older professors are not retiring at the rate that was predicted back in the 1980s and 90s. Now only 15% of PhD graduates are in a tenure track, compared to 55% in the 1970s. Instead, graduates are turning to industry and the private sector to apply their knowledge and make a living. However, due to the flood of PhDs in the market, even that distinction can no longer distinguish you from the pack, and the system has been saturated with over-qualified individuals looking for fulfilling work in academia, and instead finding low-paying postdoc and research positions. In fact, PhD recipients now have a negligible advantage over their non-PhD counterparts in average annual salary, and are frequently being forced to settle for junior positions in labs or companies for which they are over-qualified. Finally, the initial intellectual curiosity and passion that are promised to lead us to eventual feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction in our careers are also appearing to be much of a farce. Individuals with a PhD are only mildly more satisfied with their life’s work, and complain that their benefits and salary are inadequate and a source of dissatisfaction.

So with all of this daunting and demoralizing information, why continue? I suppose it’s for that glimmer of hope, the light at the end of the tunnel that you will be one of the lucky ones. That naïve doggedness that got us into this position in the first place, and yes that misplaced passion and fascination with an arcane miniscule facet of the world in which we will (hopefully) one day become experts. And, if we do succeed in reaching those ivory towers, or whatever is left of them, the sense of contribution to society, degree of independence and intellectual challenge do still provide a high incentive and source of satisfaction for those who have paved the way and achieved before us.

On the flip side, there is also the hope that this perseverance and hard work will not be for naught. That even if we don’t achieve our dream positions, or anything resembling them, that it cannot be a disadvantage to have this added expertise. That the skills, both personal and professional, industrial and academic, that we have acquired during our own tenures will not fail us and will be able to provide a foray into another field if need be.

And in this current economy, let’s be honest, there’s not really anything else we’d rather be doing. After all, at least we’re not in law school.

(Thanks to Gonzalo Urcelay for the articles and Louise Cosand for the PhD illustration.)