Nature Cell Biology’s August Editorial (11, 915; 2009) focuses on the issue of why women remain under-represented in senior academic positions, despite similar numbers of male and female graduates. The imbalance is best addressed by focusing on the reasons for divergent career choices, according to the Editorial (the following is an excerpt):
“A 2007 survey of more than 1,300 NIH postdoctoral fellows (43% female) commissioned by the NIH showed that women with children were already under-represented at the postdoctoral level (10% fewer than men with children, same age distribution). Women were less likely to consider a Principal Investigator position (51% compared with 70% men), especially those with children (45% compared with 69% men with children), and they were more prone to consider family responsibilities as a source of conflict with professional life. Moreover, women were more ready to make career concessions for their partners. Women seem to have less self-confidence, as they were 20% less likely to persevere after a failed first attempt to secure a Principal Investigator position, which 19% more men were confident they would eventually obtain. Men seemed better at securing technical support and a transferrable project, and the salary differential might also relate to better negotiation skills. On the other hand, we found no evidence that male authors had more papers published in NCB. Also, two recent large bibliometric studies concluded that gender had no effect on peer review.
No country can afford to be complacent in pursuing gender and racial equality in academia and, as more subtle reasons for divergent career choices emerge, governments and funding agencies must have an active role in addressing them. Indeed, both the NIH and EC reports concluded that women were far more likely to find Principal Investigator positions with affordable childcare and flexible working arrangements attractive. Encouraging smaller labs would also serve to attract female Principal Investigators. Affirmative action yields neither equality nor quality. Crucially, “stating a family shouldn’t be seen as a weakness”, as Sally Shaywitz [co-author of a National Academy of Sciences study] puts it. According to the Association for Women in Science, most female PhDs who leave academia take on alternative jobs, indicating that an academic career is currently simply less attractive for them."