Prizewinners’ labs ‘least likely to hire women’

Women are greatly underrepresented in the laboratories of the highest-achieving male biology professors in the US, a study has revealed.

July 1, 2014

While male biologists are on average less likely than women to hire female graduate and PhD students, labs run by men deemed to be “elite” (winners of the Nobel prize, the National Medal of Science and other prestigious awards) are the least likely to hire women, the research finds.

“What we found is that these labs really function as a gateway to the professoriate, so we think the fact that they’re not hiring very many women is important for understanding why there are still so few female faculty members,” said Jason Sheltzer, a graduate student in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the study titled “Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women”.

Overall, only 18 per cent of biology professors in the US are women, despite the fact that nationally they comprise about half of all graduate students.

In labs run by female professors, women made up 53 per cent of grad students and 46 per cent of postdocs, the paper – published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – says. Labs run by men had 47 per cent female grad students and 36 per cent female postdocs.

The gender differences became more pronounced in the labs of male Nobel laureates, where male grad students outnumbered female grad students by two to one, and male postdocs outnumbered female postdocs by more than three to one. In the labs of male scholars funded by the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute, only 31 per cent of postdocs were female.

Bringing attention to the imbalance offers an opportunity for faculty members to “do something about it”, said Angelika Amon, Kathleen and Curtis Marble professor in cancer research at MIT and PhD adviser to Mr Sheltzer. “A large segment of the population is being excluded from doing high-level research, and that can never be a good thing,” she added. “We’re losing out on bright and intelligent people.”

Labs run by high-achieving professors usually have more high-profile publications and more funding available, and strong connections with top researchers, all of which can help young scientists from those labs when applying for faculty positions.

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