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Vol. LVIII, No. 7
April 7, 2006

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Gender Equity Workshop Yields Suggestions for NIH

In the climb to academic equity, women have made great strides through graduate school, now earning one-third of chemistry Ph.D. degrees. Yet women still lag far behind men as faculty members. At the top 50 research institutions in this country, women make up just 13 percent of the chemistry faculty. Among full professors, the number drops to 9 percent.

To address these issues, more than 100 national leaders in the chemistry community gathered for a workshop sponsored by NIGMS, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The workshop, titled "Building Strong Academic Chemistry Departments through Gender Equity," took place recently in Arlington, Va. It was co-chaired by Dr. Kendall Houk, professor in the UCLA department of chemistry and biochemistry, and Dr. Cynthia Friend, chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard.

The chairs of 55 chemistry departments attended the workshop. Other prominent participants included Madeleine Jacobs, executive director of the American Chemical Society, and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Participants discussed the underlying causes of the gender gap and recommended strategies to eliminate it that ranged from making simple procedural changes to tackling systemic problems and unconscious biases.

Presenters repeatedly stressed that more than an issue of fairness, gender equity is in the nation's self-interest, since attracting the best minds to science promotes national security and the U.S. position in the global economy.

"Scientific research draws upon the same talent pool as law, medicine and business," said Dr. Michael Rogers, director of the Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry at NIGMS. "We can't afford to lose the best minds to other areas when they might otherwise choose scientific research."

Suggestions for Funding Agencies

Gender equity issues are by no means limited to the field of chemistry. According to data compiled by the NIH Office of Extramural Research, women are considerably underrepresented among NIH principal investigators compared with the number of women with doctorates in the biomedical sciences. While women who apply for NIH grants have approximately the same success rates as men, far fewer women apply. Ultimately, only 21 percent of NIH research funds go to female PIs. [NIH has gender information on almost 99 percent of its awardees. This information, provided voluntarily by grantees, has been tracked since 1994. The data represented graphically is at]

Dr. Judith Greenberg, director of the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology at NIGMS and principal leader of the NIH Director's Pioneer Award program, suggested that sometimes simple strategies can make a big difference in increasing the representation of women. She pointed out how in one year, NIH dramatically increased the number of women who received the NIH Director's Pioneer Award. In 2004, the first year the award was given, none of the nine recipients were women. The next year, 6 out of 13 awardees were women. "We didn't do an awful lot" to lead to that outcome, said Greenberg. Key changes included increasing the proportion of women on review panels, encouraging women to apply when advertising the awards and establishing clearer criteria for evaluation.

Greenberg also suggested that one straightforward step would be to require gender-equity training for grantees.

Because NIH already requires grantees to take training in responsible research conduct, meeting participants thought that adding a new module on diversity awareness would be relatively simple. "I think that could be implemented quickly if we can build the consensus to do so at NIH," said Rogers.

Workshop participants further urged funding agencies to consider gender-equity training for reviewers as well as for grantees.

Other suggestions included encouraging women to apply for large grants, where they are particularly underrepresented, and allowing multiple PIs on large grants. Participants also recommended that federal agencies encourage women to take part in new initiatives such as the NIH Pathway to Independence award, which is designed to help investigators receive R01 awards earlier in their research careers. The group urged agencies to establish family-friendly policies, such as providing paid maternity leave for students and postdocs and opening more opportunities to reenter the workforce after taking time off to care for children or attend to other family responsibilities.

Sen. Wyden pointed out that Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits gender discrimination in any federally funded educational setting, can broaden opportunities for women in the sciences. Although now mostly associated with sports, the law does not mention sports and was originally intended to remove gender bias in academia, he noted. Wyden acknowledged the presence of "embedded problems" that the law cannot simply sweep away, but he suggested that Title IX legislation is underused to create opportunities for women in academics. "You cannot get done what's important for this country if you give short shrift to women in chemistry," he said. "Federal agencies ought to set an example.

"We don't need a huge new federal program," Wyden continued. "What we really need is leadership and people being imaginative."

Suggestions for Chemistry Chairs and Institution Leaders

Social scientists presented evidence that both unconscious and overt forms of discrimination in academia affect women's choices and professional progress. For example, studies mentioned at the meeting report that female faculty in the sciences may have less opportunity to focus on their research because they tend to be given heavier teaching loads and more administrative burdens. Dr. Virginia Valian, a psychology professor at Hunter College, and others suggested that women are impeded by the accumulation of small disadvantages. "Mountains just are molehills piled one on another," said Valian.

Dr. Jeremy Berg, director of NIGMS, said that one key to equity is better mentoring of graduate students, postdocs and junior faculty. Suggestions from other workshop participants included increasing the number of women in applicant pools for faculty positions; providing opportunities for two-career families; requiring diversity awareness training for hiring officials; working around family responsibilities when scheduling important meetings; placing women in leadership positions; and equally allocating laboratory space, teaching responsibilities and administrative burdens to male and female faculty.

The workshop organizers asked participants to work with their institutions to select two action items to implement and to report their decisions within 2 months of the meeting. The plan is to convene the group again in about a year to review progress. "These are issues that require sustained effort over time," said meeting co-chair Friend. In other words, the mountains standing between women chemists and academic equity won't be razed overnight, but rather in the same way they were built — one molehill at a time.

More information about the workshop can be found at

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