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Repairing the Faculty Pipeline: A prestigious award and an NAS study contrast the state of female faculty

September 2006--Between her honor of sharing the 2006 Lasker award and her primo standing as director of Hopkins’ Molecular Biology and Genetics, Carol Greider looks to be the very model of a modern female scientist. But she knows better. As one of only three female department heads—out of 31 at the School of Medicine—she feels that, for women in science, becoming a full professor and heading a research department at a major institution lie at the end of a long and sometimes tortuous route.

 “I’d thought problems of promotion had been solved when I entered graduate school,” Greider says. “My class was 50 percent female—not unusual. Only as I advanced to higher positions did the under-representation become obvious. I’d go to meetings, for example, and be the only woman speaker on the list.” 

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that on the day after Greider’s award announcement, the National Academies released its latest report: “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.”

The comprehensive study confirms what Greider and others have observed:  The pipeline that transports female scientists from high-school students to tenured professors or key administrators is remarkably leaky. As a result, women in research, nationally, are generally paid less, promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors and hold fewer leadership positions.

The findings aren’t a revelation at the School of Medicine. In June 2005, the Committee for Faculty Development and Gender, appointed in 2002, published its first report. Members found that the medical school, as elsewhere, has a paucity of senior female faculty; women represented only 10 percent of department heads and 15 percent of full professors. Meanwhile, graduate classes continue to be well represented by women—both in number and accomplishments.

Where, then, in this day and age, does the problem lie? If capable women are swelling our graduate programs, doesn’t that show outright sexism is lessening in academia? Perhaps. Both the national and Hopkins reports highlight a shift toward a more subtle atmosphere of bias. Gone are the overt days when neurovirologist Diane Griffin, now head of Bloomberg’s molecular microbiology/immunology department, was told she didn’t need a raise because “her husband was rich.”

Now, the problem may lie in the inherent collegiality of institutions where much of career advancement occurs within informal power networks—ones still male-dominated. And while institutions’ conscious efforts strive for equality, subconscious leanings toward “like” individuals persist, as Greider and other female faculty who have more women postdocs in their labs can attest.

“When it comes to networking, there’s a comfort level that develops,” Greider says. Male professors may feel more inclined to “make the rounds” with male graduate students at meetings, may be more inclined to promote male postdocs when they hear about a job opening, and may view male candidates more favorably when part of a search committee.

“There’s no conscious bias in it,” she adds, “but these leanings add up.”

Yet no matter why the disparities, and even though Hopkins’ figures mirror national averages, they’re clearly not acceptable. The summary report included recommendations to maximize female hiring, promotion and retention. Fortunately, policies on salary equity are in place. But are other changes on the way?

Yes, if recognizing the problem is the first step. “In our surveys, both men and women agreed that informal power networks exist; women are just less likely to feel part of them,” says Cynthia Wolberger, a committee co-chair. To convert that knowledge into action, she says, will require both official University efforts—maximizing diversity of search committees, for example—and unofficial ones, such as faculty women promoting female students more.

Perversely, change may suffer from the institution’s new focus on diversity, Wolberger adds. “Lots of attention’s being paid to the diversity issue. I haven’t seen as much attention paid to women, although I’ve been told they’re part of  ‘diversity.’” But while the two issues have core similarities, merging them overlooks a key difference. “Minority faculty are underrepresented in science; we still need to increase their numbers entering the pipeline. But this isn’t a problem with women; there are plenty of qualified Ph.D.’s.”

Worrisome, too, are faculty retention issues. Some believe NIH funding cuts may lead to institutions’ preferentially hiring researchers with established support—translate: higher-up male faculty—increasing both “senior shuffle” and gender imbalance.

“Still,” says Wolberger, “it’s difficult to measure change right now without looking at the big picture.”

When the committee’s second survey—it appears every three years—comes out,  it will be interesting to see if Hopkins has sealed some leaks.

--Nick Zagorski

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