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Vol. LX, No. 4
February 22, 2008

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Results Support, Surprise and Stump
Survey of NIH Postdocs in Pursuit of Tenure Provides Answers, More Questions

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When it comes to child-rearing and family, many women have to—or choose to—sacrifice their science careers, and for the most part, men don’t. That may explain at least in part why women comprise less than 20 percent of NIH’s intramural senior investigators, but make up about 45 percent of NIH’s postdoctoral population. Some time between completing their postdoc training and starting on the tenure track, more women than men stop pursuing their independent scientist careers. NIH—and the entire scientific community—want to know why. Last summer, the agency finished the first of 4 surveys designed to provide answers. Results alternately supported, surprised and stumped theorists.

“The confidence issue is the thing that surprised us the most,” said Dr. Joan Schwartz, assistant director of NIH’s Office of Intramural Research, which cofunded the study with the Office of Science Policy and the Office of Research on Women’s Health. “Our women postdocs feel so much less confident than the men.”


The survey found that “more than 59 percent of men, but only 40 percent of women, were highly confident that they would achieve tenure.” The disparity between genders increased among U.S. fellows.

“I have to say that the confidence part was somewhat depressing,” said NIDDK senior investigator Dr. Orna Cohen-Fix, coauthor of the study, which was published in EMBO Reports, a publication of the European Molecular Biology Organization. “If they had said, ‘The system was against us,’ we could deal with that, but identifying and addressing the causes for this lack of confidence will be very difficult.”

“Or if they had said they didn’t feel as well trained,” Schwartz added. “The fact that they were equally well-trained by self perception in all those different skill sets and then still weren’t as confident [is puzzling].”

More than 1,300 intramural postdoctoral fellows responded to the web-based survey. Women accounted for 43 percent of respondents. NIH has more than 2,400 postdocs on staff. The study is part of an ongoing initiative on the topic by OIR, which convened the 2nd task force on the status of NIH intramural women scientists in 2003. The first task force was established in 1991 to identify and address concerns of intramural women scientists. Since then, NIH has deployed various groups to find ways to recruit, promote and retain women in science, both intramurally and as grantees.

The recent study shows that boosting the number and broadening the impact of female principal investigators remain elusive goals that require more than offers of gender-equal education, training, mentoring, resources and salary.

The recent study was conducted at NIH because the agency’s population of postdocs—43 percent women, 57 percent men—reflects the nation’s gender distribution of fellows working in biological science fields.

In results that may mirror cultural or societal realities, the survey also found that “31 percent of married women said they would make changes to accommodate their husband’s job, whereas only 21 percent of the men reported they would do the same for their wife’s career.” U.S. men were only half as likely as non-U.S. men to change their careers in favor of their wife’s job. About 30 percent of men expected their wives to make changes; 15 percent of women had that expectation. “Therefore,” study authors concluded, “it appears that women fellows face family challenges not equally shared by men.”

So basically, traditional gender roles continue—particularly for Americans: Husband is perceived to be the main (if not sole) breadwinner. Add children and women’s choices become more complex.

“Some women,” Cohen-Fix explained, “don’t pursue a PI position not because they have the freedom to choose between staying in academia and staying at home, but because they have no choice but to take care of the kids full time, for example, because their husband takes no part in child care, and as a result it’s impossible for them to have a career.”

Study findings also highlighted contrasts between U.S. women and those from other countries.

“The other thing that surprised me,” said Cohen-Fix, “was the difference between S. and foreign postdocs. Foreign postdocs who come here have to overcome more than U.S. postdocs [do]. It seemed that the level of dedication and commitment was somewhat higher among [foreign] women postdocs. And the confidence was higher. The postdocs that manage to get themselves here may be a very select group.”

Schwartz agreed, summarizing more study results. “The foreign women were as confident as both the American men and the foreign men,” she said. “They were all equivalent. It was only the American women who were lower in confidence.”

“It could be because [foreign women postdocs] had to go through more hoops to get here,” Cohen-Fix suggested. “Also there could be a cultural difference in terms of the expectations as a parent. I grew up in Israel and there was no such thing as a stay-at-home mom, so it never occurred to me to be that. I’m sure that’s true as well for a lot of Chinese postdocs and many European postdocs—they never thought they’d be stay-at-home moms, so it never crosses your mind not to have a career. Whereas a lot of American women at least in part feel guilty for not doing that because there is some society pressure to spend a significant amount of time at home.”

The value of women scientists is undisputed. How then do we clone the 20 percent who are making it work? The recent study shows that boosting the number and broadening the impact of female principal investigators remain elusive goals that require more than offers of gender-equal education, training, mentoring, resources and salary. While more family-friendly work policies and flexible schedules could help, other less tangible factors come into play.

“It’s a culture that we need to figure out how to change,” concluded Schwartz, a senior scientist who is married to a senior scientist. “Some of us don’t have children. Some of us have supportive husbands. [My husband and I] said from the minute we got married that every time we have to move, we’ll sit down and figure out what’s the best for both of us. We’re not going to move because one of us got a fantastic offer and the other one is going to trail along and find something. But people don’t have that discussion. It’s clear that women are not having that discussion.”

Cohen-Fix agreed that a shift in societal thinking may be called for and that barriers have to be removed so that all women in science feel they can reach their full potential professionally. All who want to become principal investigators need to see that it definitely can be done, she stressed.

Cohen-Fix also suggested that the nature of conducting research draws the cream to the top.

“Science is very hard,” she said. “It’s incredibly time-demanding. Often you walk around banging your head against the wall. Sometimes being at home, having a part-time job, raising your children—that’s not so bad. Because women legitimately have other options—which are great—the 20 percent of women who do this are really the most motivated, driven women.

“I sometimes say the problem with science is not that there are too few women, but that there are too many men,” she concluded. “If you took the same top 20 percent of men that are driven and motivated, you’d have an equal proportion of men and women. For men, after their postdoc, staying home with the kids is not really an option for tons and tons of reasons. So I think because as a society women don’t have to force themselves to struggle, a lot them say, ‘We don’t like this. It’s going be too hard. I’m just going to do something else.’ As a result, the 20 percent who do do it, really really love this. They almost can’t help themselves. It’s like starving artists—you wonder why do you do this if you’re going to be starving, but it’s not like they have a choice.” NIHRecord Icon

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