Women and men enter graduate programs in biology in about equal numbers but women are less likely than their male counterparts to become academic scientists. So what happens along the way?
A new study by Shelley Adamo, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University, rejects what she says is a commonly held notion that motherhood alone accounts for the high attrition rate of women in the biological sciences. Rather, Dr. Adamo concludes, it is the stiff competition for faculty positions and, more specifically, the age when that competition occurs that is responsible for the persistent gender gap. “It’s an unfortunate constellation of things,” and one in which motherhood plays only a part, she said in an interview.
The paper, which appears in the January issue of BioScience, is based largely on a literature review. It argues that women don’t avoid becoming academic scientists because it is a high stress, high-workload profession that makes it difficult to balance motherhood and a career. “If this were true, you would expect that women would also avoid careers such as medicine,” says the paper. Yet, women outnumber men in medical school and they make up a large proportion of working physicians. (The study cites data collected by the 2010 National Physicians Survey, which says 40 percent of Canadian family physicians and 35 percent of all physicians were women.)
The key difference between the two fields, argued Dr. Adamo, is in the admission process. Medical schools restrict the number of students they admit based on the number of available positions for working doctors, while universities place no such limits on graduate school admissions, making it a less competitive process to get in. The result is an oversupply of biologists for academic positions. Thus, competition for postdoctoral fellowships and faculty positions in biology is exceptionally fierce and getting worse, she said.
Moreover, the period of intense competition for medicine occurs when women are in their early 20s, but for academic positions, it occurs later, when women are in their late 20s and early 30s and more likely to have a partner and young children. “That sort of handicaps them,” Dr. Adamo said. “So it’s not motherhood per se that is the issue.” Rather, motherhood tends to occur at the same time that women biologists are facing extreme competition for faculty positions. And, the student phase of scientific training is the stage that receives the least family support. Funded maternity leaves are less generous for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows than they are for faculty members, she said.
Citing data from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the study notes that the number of new full-time faculty positions in the biological sciences in Canada has declined about 20 percent over the last eight years while the number of biologists with PhDs has grown 23 percent over the same period. This exacerbates the problem for women of child-bearing age, it says.
“The competition disproportionately disadvantages women who are married and women with children,” Dr. Adamo said, and is likely the key factor in reducing the number of women who are apt to pursue faculty positions.
To reverse the trend, Dr. Adamo recommends creating more family-friendly work policies for graduate students and postdocs. The recent report by the Council of Canadian Academies on barriers to women in research made a similar observation, noting that “more family friendly options and more flexible models of career progression are important considerations for a diversifying workplace.”
Even more effective, according to Dr. Adamo, would be for universities to restrict the number of students they admit into graduate biology programs, the same as they do for med school. This would reduce competition for faculty positions, improve job security and create “more of an even playing field” for women scientists.
But the solution Dr. Adamo advocates would be difficult to implement, she herself admits, because it would require a coordinated response by granting agencies, universities and professors who employ graduate students to work in their labs. It would mean changing “the way we do science here in Canada,” she said. “We rely on this cheap, transient workforce to get our work done.”
So there’s little appetite among professors to change the status quo because it would mean having to hire more expensive lab technicians, an unlikely prospect at a time when university budgets are shrinking. “We train [students] with little thought about what their real chances are of getting a position,” she said. “It disturbs me because I think this pattern disproportionately affects women.”
Dr. Adamo discounts the notion that biological research scientists are needed in industrial and other jobs outside of academia. “Although the need for alternative career paths and other methods of enhancing employment opportunities for graduate students and postdocs in biology have been pointed out repeatedly, it is unrealistic to assume that there are enough non-academic jobs available in biology for all the graduate students that we are training,” she writes. “Moreover, academic positions remain the favored career path for most postdocs, driving intense competition.”
If no effort is made to change the situation, married women and women with children will be less likely to enter science, reversing the gains women have achieved in the field, the paper warns: “Our success in retaining women faculty shows that it is not motherhood that drives women from science, it is the interaction of motherhood with the corrosive competitiveness that follows from too few positions for too many biologists.”
While the study deals specifically with biology, Dr. Adamo said her findings and recommendations would also apply to other fields since many disciplines including those in the humanities and natural sciences also suffer from an oversupply of PhDs. “The issue of over-production and increasing competition for positions is not new and is not limited to the biological sciences,” she said.