How long before science is gender neutral?

How far we've come and how far is left to go...
04 July 2022

Interview with 

Lindy Barrett, Broad Institute


Male and female shaking hands


Considerable efforts have been made in recent years to achieve a more even balance of men and women in science, and particularly at senior levels. So how effective have those interventions been, and if we continue along the same trajectory of change, how long will it be before we arrive at gender parity? Surprisingly, this is not well delineated, so the Broad Institute’s Lindy Barrett set out to find out…

Lindy - The first thing that I did was really to take some data sets that had been collected by an organisation called the AAMC. This is the Association of American Medical Colleges because they have historic data on gender at different career stages going back for over a decade. And so the first thing that I did was look at how much change we've seen in a recent 10 year period and the number of both male and female full professors and department shares. Assuming we have the same rate of progress, I wanted to project how long it would take to get to gender parity, which is that 50 50 split between men and women. And the second question was, how do we actually get to 50/50? And I wanted to probe more deeply how getting to gender parity really might or might not impact men because so much attention in the area of gender imbalance is focused on women and how to promote and retain women. But we don't hear as much about how this will impact men.

Chris - Well, let's take those two things in turn. The first point you said was how long it would take. So how long will it take before we see an academic landscape which is about 50/50?

Lindy - At the leadership levels at tenured faculty and at department chairs, the short answer is that if really nothing changes, we're looking at another 30 to 40 years.

Chris - Where are these people going? Because if you look at the bottom end, the trainees, there's not that disparity. So where is the jumping off point and where do these women go?

Lindy - It's really interesting. I've kind of gone into this assuming that there was a slow attrition all along the way. But, at least in the case of US academic medicine, men and women are receiving the relevant degrees, which are MDs and PhDs in biomedicine, in roughly equal numbers. So we've a highly trained workforce of both genders and it's actually pretty equal at the assistant professor level. I think it's roughly 46% women and 54% men at that level. And then the attrition is really happening between the assistant professor and full professor level. So that was really striking that we're really getting a pipeline of women all the way to the assistant professor level, and then we're getting the drop off.

Chris - Dare I speculate that that might happen to also be the age at which women end up having children, because that I know from personal experience and talking to my colleagues brings enormous pressure and is a huge tension for people where they're having to choose between a career and a family very often. And in the US it's even intensified because there is much less provision for maternal leave and so on and family and parental leave, isn't there.

Lindy - Absolutely. It's really the age at which women are seeking tenures: the childbearing years, essentially. As you mentioned in the United States, there's no paid parental leave policy, there are a lot of difficulties that women specifically face because of their role as mothers. There are several studies suggesting that the gender disparity is a disparity of parenting, but I think parenthood is certainly not the only factor. I think that many of the issues are cumulative over time and they may reach a culmination when you're talking about that critical stage of promotion and retention at the faculty level.

Chris - The other point you mentioned is, what about when we flip this round and say, well, okay, we want to change this. So what does this mean for men? How did you investigate that? And what did you find?

Lindy - I essentially looked at two different ways to get to gender parity. So assuming we're going to get to a place of 50/50 between men and women, there are a couple of different ways that we could do this. One strategy would be to keep the number of men in these positions constant and just add more women. The second strategy would be to keep the overall number of positions constant and add women while also decreasing the number of men. And I think this is a bit more consistent with data over the last 30 years, showing that the absolute number of faculty positions has remained rather static. So if we take the first example, if we keep the number of men constant and we just add women, we would need to add nearly 20,000 new full professor positions just for women in order to get us to that 50/50. And so that would be an enormous increase. It would be going from just over 38,000 to nearly 58,000 positions. Alternatively, if we were to keep the overall number of positions constant, we actually need to double the number of women in these positions, but we also would need to reduce the number of men in these positions by at least a third. So we would be looking at taking about 10,000 of the current full professor positions that are held by men and essentially replacing those positions with women in order to get to the 50/50.

Chris - Hmm. It may also not go down very well if you take scenario two, mightn't it, because, to give you an example, which is a totally different situation but is similar in terms of its impact: there was a report written recently, some sentiment expressed by Stephen Toope who's the vice chancellor of Cambridge University. He was saying that, people who send their children to private school are going to have to get used to the fact that Cambridge, Oxford, other leading institutions, are going to take fewer people in future from private school. And they're going to bais admissions more towards people who are not at private school. Now his intentions are good ones, but the message that's coming through is, as a child, you will be discriminated against for a decision that your parents have made. So the men in your scientific scenario are effectively being discriminated against for a decision that history hands to them, not of their own making, which sounds a little bit unfair.

Lindy - Yeah. And I think when we look at the numbers, and that's why it's so important to do so, it really gets to questions of fairness. And I think a lot of people would have a gut reaction of, well, we can't do that. I think the point where we start to impact the position of men is the point where some people may feel very uncomfortable with some of the gender equality initiatives. But I think that really gets to the question of how do we think about fairness and advantage and who deserves a seat at the table? So I think the closer that we can look at the position of men and gender equality, that deserves some attention to get us toward more realistic solutions. And it may be that the field is sufficiently uncomfortable in reducing the number of men that we need to be looking at some of these alternative scenarios. But how do we think about additional resources? How do we think about restructuring power? These are conversations, I think, we really need to be having if the numbers are going to make people uncomfortable.


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