Male university professors in the sciences, particularly those with elite credentials, employ a small share of female students in their labs, thus potentially hurting women’s chances of advancing in the field, according to a new study from Jason M. Sheltzer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Joan C. Smith of Twitter. While women currently receive more than half of all doctorates in life sciences, they only make up 36 percent of assistant professors and 18 percent of full professors in the field, and their lack of representation in male faculty members’ training laboratories may be part of why.
The two researchers collected data from university directories and websites at departments that study molecular biology, cell biology, biochemistry, and/or genetics. In all, they looked the gender of 2,062 faculty members at 24 of the highest-ranked research institutions as well as the makeup of the graduate students and postdocs working in their laboratories. Within the sample, 21 percent of the full professors and 29 percent of assistant professors were women, while about half of the graduate student trainees were women and about 40 percent of the postdocs were women.
They found that, on average, the male faculty members ran laboratories with 22 percent fewer female postdocs and 11 percent fewer female graduate students in them than the female faculty members’ labs. In male-run labs, 36 percent of the postdocs and 47 percent of the graduate students were women, “significantly lower than the values that we observed in laboratories headed by women,” the write. The female professors ran labs with an average of 46 percent female postdocs and 53 percent female grad students.
Things get worse for male professors who have prestigious career achievements, such as being funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), or winning a major research award. These male faculty members employed significantly fewer female postdocs other men. “In contrast, female professors who had achieved the same career milestones showed no evidence of a gender bias,” the researchers note. In fact, they found, “Among female faculty, major award winners actually trained slightly more female graduate students than non-award winners.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this means that male students are more likely to do their training with highly qualified faculty members. “[M]en were about 17% more likely to do their graduate training with a member of the NAS, 25% more likely to do their postdoctoral training with a member of the NAS, and 90% more likely to do their postdoctoral training with a Nobel Laureate,” the researchers report. This means that “the limited number of women trained in these laboratories reduces the number of female candidates who would be most competitive for faculty job searches” when they go on to apply to be professors themselves.
This is creating a pipeline problem for women. The researchers found that most of the new assistant professors at the institutions they studied came from the laboratories of these prestigious faculty members. “We conclude that [professors] who successfully train new assistant professors employ an overabundance of male postdocs,” the researchers write, making it harder for women to break into the academic ranks.
The over-selection of men for these lab roles can’t be explained by rank, age, or the number of people in a given person’s lab, either. Both young and old elite male professors employ few women.
The researchers note that their research doesn’t prove any conscious bias against female students from male professors. Women could apply less frequently to work in these labs. It could also be the case that the female applicants are less qualified than the male ones, but that seems unlikely given that highly credentialed female faculty members manage to hire plenty of women.
Instead it could simply be bias, conscious or unconscious. A recent survey found that university professors of both genders are more likely to respond to white men who reach out for guidance than women and people of color. Another recent study found that when prospective employers hiring for a math job only know the candidate’s physical appearance, and therefore their gender, they are twice as likely to pick a man than a woman. Noting such evidence, the researchers write, “[W]e suggest that gender bias may contribute to the decreased employment of women in laboratories with the elite male [faculty members].”
This bias may help explain why women continue to struggle to break into the science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields. They make up 41 percent of those graduating from science and engineering programs, yet represent just a quarter of people who work in STEM jobs, and their progress has slowed since 1990. Among graduates in these fields, men end up employed in a STEM occupation at twice the rate of women. And even when women are able to secure these jobs, they often end up leaving: Women quit the STEM field in their first years 45 percent more often than men. Those women who stick it out still deal with making less; women with a science or engineering degree working in STEM jobs make $15,900 less a year than men in the same boat.