Elite Male Faculty Employ Fewer Women

men-better-than-womenJason Sheltzer is a graduate student in cancer genomics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He works in the Amon Lab, where the principal investigator (PI), half the graduate students and half the postdocs are women. Sheltzer was astonished when a friend at Princeton University told him she was the first female graduate student at her PI’s physics lab in his 20-plus years as an academic.

In fact, that bit of news prompted Sheltzer to take a closer look at gender distribution in academia in his discipline—biomedicine—which, in contrast to many scientific and science-related fields, isn’t completely dominated by men. That relative abundance of women, however, only makes the number of female faculty in tenure-track positions harder to explain: Slightly more than a third of all assistant professors are women, and the percentage of female full professors is about half of that. Some analysis was in order, he decided.

Along with his partner—Joan Smith, a software engineer at Twitter—Sheltzer gathered information on 4143 graduate students, 4904 postdoctoral fellows, and 2062 faculty members employed at 24 of the 25 highest-ranked U.S. biomedical research institutions. (They left out one—Scripps Research Institute—because that institution classifies postdocs in ambiguous ways.) The results of the analysis are described in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper titled: “Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women.” High-achieving male faculty, the paper concludes, train fewer women than other investigators do—fewer than elite women and fewer than non-elite men.

That matters, because working in an elite lab is one of the best ways for talented, academe-oriented scientists to take the next step into a tenure-track faculty post. In fact, the study found, assistant professors at elite institutions are largely drawn from postdocs at elite labs.

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