My title has removed the words “in the Life Sciences” from the title of a paper published June 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While I do not have statistics to demonstrate the universality of this conclusion, I do have some relevant experience and connections to the work to share.
In their article, MIT biology graduate student Jason Sheltzer and physics graduate Joan C. Smith showed that senior male professors in biology, especially those with prestigious awards or are members of the National Academies, train a significantly smaller percentage of female graduate students and postdocs than their female or junior colleagues. The most prestigious labs, led by men and offer many of the best career development opportunities, are the least likely to train women. The data are convincing, and the effect is clear: women are less likely than men to get either the professional development opportunities or the top letters of recommendation from these prestigious labs. It’s no wonder that only 36% of assistant professors in biology are women, even though half of the PhDs in biology go to women.
I have a very personal perspective on this study. Joan C. Smith was an undergraduate physics major at MIT while I was the Physics Department Head. We worked together to organize the 2011 Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, a national conference of great importance to our field. She is also a superb experimental physicist, programmer and engineer. I am thrilled that she turned her statistical and data analysis talents to shine such a clear light on a major problem of the professoriate.
It’s personal too
But it’s not just the biologists who should ask, “Have I done everything I can to identify, encourage and advance talented individuals applying to my research group?” You see, Sheltzer and Smith were led to this study when they heard a physics graduate student at a dinner party mention she was the first female student her advisor had graduated in 20 years. I couldn’t help but wonder, was it my graduate student they spoke with? So I looked up my record and found an 18-year gap between my PhDs awarded to women, 2 out of 16 total. Ouch. As I spoke with pride of my students and their successes over the years, I never stopped to think about how I was shaping the future face of the profession.
In recent years my research group has been gender balanced; by including undergraduates, that is easy to achieve even in theoretical astrophysics at MIT. However, we must ask not what is easy, but what is right. Unless “elite male faculty” recruit, mentor and promote more women and others from underrepresented groups, science will suffer from our failure to adequately draw talent from more than half the population.
I encourage other faculty members, male and female, to take this matter personally, too.
[A version of this blog was published in the Women in Astronomy blog.]