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The Black Hole

To close the gender gap, make other jobs sexy


When I was in the early stages of my undergraduate degree, I thought long and hard about doing an MBA in combination with science. It seemed to me that the sector was underdeveloped in Canada and good science training was going to be essential to a successful career. I was motivated to go out and create products that were useful for people and make money while doing so.

That was circa 2001 and, upon reflection, I believe that my science mentors from 3rd year undergraduate onwards steered me away from the biotech industry repeatedly and uncompromisingly – demonizing such careers as “selling out” or “not real science.” To be fair, I am quite happy with where I ended up and the scientific mentoring I have received along the way has been incredible, but some part of me wonders how much of a demographic shift in science training could be achieved if the impressions left on young minds were different.

Just the other day, I started thinking about this issue through the gender lens and arrived at a theory that made me curious (apologies to any social scientist  out there who has already done this – please forward/link to relevant articles!). Basically, I wonder if the glorification of careers in industry (or other non-academic careers like patent law) could shift the gender balance in academic circles.

If you google “traits of successful entrepreneurs” and click through a few lists, you’ll note the convergence on key characteristics like “driven,” “risk taker,” “forward looking” and “confident.” This immediately brought me back to an article I wrote years ago on gender bias in reference letters, where these character traits were associated more often with men than women in letters from academic employers. This in turn made me wonder if we’ve been approaching gender imbalance in the wrong way – instead of programs designed to keep women in academia, why not create reasons for men to leave?

Men think they are great, sometimes they aren’t

There is no need for direct incentive – simply have mentors pitch it as an attractive, well-respected position and men will apply for it. I cringe a little every time I go to a career day and hear, “Only 20% of you will become professors, so everyone in this room should be thinking about non-academic careers.” While the spirit of the statement is something I agree with (everyone should consider non-academic careers), the tone of such statements is often one of fear and failure. Practical people say, “screw that, it’s not worth the risk, the instability, or the pressure” and arrogant/confident people say, “That’s really bad news for those 80%, glad I’m not one of them.” Sadly I think this type of career day drives more women out of academic research.

Medical school talent shows

Something I’ve noticed over my years near medical students is that there is an incredible pool of general talent – just go investigate a med school talent show or concert series. I’ve always wondered what brought some of them into medicine when they could clearly be at the cutting edge of the performing arts. I’m sure there are also many mathematics geniuses, athletes, etc., but again, why medicine? I think that a sizable fraction enter medical school because they can, not because they should, and see it as “reaching the top.”

On the other hand, I’ve also noticed people who would be incredibly good doctors (smart, dedicated, personable, etc.) that haven’t built their CV in the same way to make themselves look amazing and they are often on the outside looking in at doctors who are really clever, but don’t even want to be doctors. I fear that exactly the same happens in academic circles and insist that not everyone who can be a professor should be one.

Make other jobs sexy – introduce new food

The current system has one successful metric: get a professor job. If you put that carrot in front of a bunch of clever, motivated people and tell the losers that they cannot eat, it’s easy to predict what will happen. However, if you put several additional food options in front of people, choices are made for better reasons (taste, nutrition, etc.) rather than be focused on a prize you may not wish to win.

Overall, I think that the life sciences, especially in Canada, would do well to develop an enthusiasm for supporting the careers of young scientist/entrepreneur types. I’m not suggesting cutting corners on academic training – obtaining a PhD should always be a rigorous process – but rather I am suggesting that we see non-academic careers as viable options for academic trainees and encourage people to pursue them.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. SB / June 25, 2013 at 21:16

    I’m a little uneasy with the idea that we should strive to achieve fair representation of women in academia in part by encouraging men to leave. That could very easily (and detrimentally) be misinterpreted to mean that women are incapable of achieving equality based on their own merits. And I don’t think the gender imbalance is the big problem per se; rather, it is a manifestation of an uneven playing field that prevents a significant proportion of scientists from reaching their full potential. So instead of fixing the symptom (adjusting the gender ratio by whatever means necessary), I would be more in favour of tackling the distal cause and implementing policies that ensure people of all genders are given equal opportunity to succeed. Instead of encouraging confident men to go do something other than research (presumably to make way for timid women who would make excellent scientists), we should be building a work culture that instils confidence in women and encourages them to seriously consider all of their career options, academia and industry included.

  2. Paolo Gallipoli / July 16, 2013 at 18:18

    Dave, had heard about your blog but had not read it yet. Really good posts! This one in particular has caught my attention. Not much for the gender implications but overall for the truth of it in regards on how people are sometime driven into career paths for wrong reasons. Simple thoughts but so well and clearly explained and delivered. An eye opener! Congrats! I will start to follow you more regularly


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