Paolo Rossi Castelli 11 March 2021 5 min read

Women at a disadvantage in US research laboratories

A study on the activities of the prestigious US National Institutes of Health confirms that female researchers are still underrepresented in key roles compared to their male colleagues.

 

The gender gap, i.e. the difference in representation between males and females, also affects one of the world’s most prestigious scientific institutes: the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The statistics contained in a study published in the online scientific journal JAMA Network Open by researchers from the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago confirm the reality in many other working environments, and certainly not only those in the USA.

In order to understand the actual situation, the authors looked at 367 study sessions that took place in 25 research centres between May and July 2019 to decide which research proposals would be granted funding (the NIH is the main source of federal support for biomedical research in the USA).

The sessions involved a total of more than 8800 researchers, reviewers, ethics committee members and team leaders, etc. The University of Chicago “investigators” identified the gender (male or female) of these people using Internet searches based on names, pronouns linked to the name and also photographs. If unconfirmed, the gender was assigned using the website genderize.io, which searches for information on proper names in a number of databases and assigns a gender “probability”, based on a mathematical model.

 

Women in research: less than 40%

This research showed that 38.9% of the 8800 researchers/reviewers were women, 61.1% were men, and women were in the majority in only 4 centres. Furthermore, only 9 institutes were chaired by a woman, whereas 49% had a female reviewer (which is good news). In all sessions, however, women usually had a lower academic rank or degree, and their situation was more often precarious than that of their male colleagues.

Finally, the study sessions coordinated by a woman more often had a male reviewer, and the centres with the most funding were also those that least frequently had a woman leading the groups receiving funding.

In brief, even if the situation as a whole appears less unbalanced at the National Institutes of Health than at institutes in other countries, differences remain, whichever way they are measured: from the perspective of career and of responsibilities, as well as from the point of view of the management of funds and the coordination of research projects. This means that women count for less, and have less freedom to steer their studies in the direction they see fit.

Far from equality

This survey, however – as the authors pointed out – has several limitations. First of all, it is divided into only two genders (the analysis of the names revealed more than 20 individuals who could not be allocated one of the genders with certainty). Similarly, the study does not distinguish between ethnic groups. Furthermore, it only covers sessions held over a short period of time, and therefore says nothing about the general trend. Nevertheless, despite all this, there is no doubt that the study provides an explicit clue, and that it justifies conducting further, more in-depth, detailed analyses extended over longer periods of time in similar situations.

Moreover, the results lead to a natural conclusion: more needs to be done to achieve equality, also through specific, norm-based programmes that reward female inclusion.

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Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by corriere.it on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.