If you are a principal investigator in biomedicine running a lab dominated by one gender, should you be worried?
Perhaps the prizewinning male PIs whose staff and students, according to a recent study, tend to be overwhelmingly male as well may not be too concerned.
But in response to Times Higher Education’s article on the report, Nathalie Grandvaux, an associate professor at the University of Montreal with an all-female lab, tweeted to say that she was “desperate” to hire men.
She told THE that this was because male and female scientists had complementary strengths: the women tended to be more rigorous, the men more willing to take risks.
Dr Grandvaux said that a female-dominated lab also had more problems coping with maternity leave. In the past six years, four of her staff had had maternity leave, with another period impending.
“This is great, but we need to learn how to work with it better. It takes six months to train a replacement to be efficient, so we end up with breaks in the projects,” she said.
She admitted that women’s dominance of undergraduate biology was reflected in the gender split of applications to her lab. But she had noticed that the men who turned down her offers invariably ended up at male-run labs. She did not believe that men were unwilling to work under a female PI, but speculated that they might be wary of working in all-female labs – which were sometimes run by male PIs.
She also suspected that the lighter-touch supervision typically offered by male PIs was more attractive to men, who, she said, generally achieved independence of thought more quickly than women.
Judith Allen, professor of immunobiology at the University of Edinburgh, agreed that labs with a gender balance “tend to be more emotionally healthy”. But she had not found men to be less rigorous than women. And although she had had “a couple of male PhD students who were big risk-takers”, the sample size was too small to draw conclusions. However, she speculated that women’s greater preference for collaboration could explain their scarcity in “certain types of labs”, as well as higher academic echelons.
Although her lab is now predominantly female, it had not always been so. In recruiting, she took no account of gender and she had not had problems recruiting men.
Another female professor with a female-dominated lab, who did not wish to be named, reported a similar experience. While unconvinced that the sexes had different scientific strengths, she believed that “the essence of a good research team is both gender and cultural diversity”.
“How closely I manage individuals is based upon the individual’s development needs, and this will vary from researcher to researcher irrespective of gender,” she added.