Despite decades of efforts to increase the number of women working in science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM), these fields still aren’t tapping into all of the brainpower available to them. That’s the take-home message from more than 500 “report cards” from academic and scientific institutions.
In 2014, one of us (SLS) launched the Initiative on Women in Science and Engineering by convening a working group of leading women — and men — and asking them to identify proven, easy-to-implement strategies to decrease the gender imbalance in STEM fields. One of the seven actionable strategies that emerged from the working group was the institutional Report Card for Gender Equality to evaluate institutions’ commitment to promoting gender equality.
The report card has two goals. By establishing a cross-sectional benchmark of gender representation and related policies at various institutions, future interventions or sociocultural progress can be measured — the “we need to know where we are in order to understand if we are making progress” goal. It also motivates institutions to address their own problems with gender inequity by drawing their attention to the issue and encouraging them to identify areas for improvement — the “shine a bright light” goal.
In 2015, the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute began requiring all applicants for funding through its competitive fellowship and investigator awards to submit a completed report card on behalf of their institutions. The applicants were assured that data from the card would not affect funding decisions. Since then, nearly 1,300 report cards representing 541 unique institutions across 38 countries have been submitted. Writing in Thursday’s issue of Cell Stem Cell, we and colleagues report our analysis of the cards and explore their implications for women in STEM. In a nutshell, there is still much work to do.
Recruitment is not the issue: women are well represented as students in undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate programs. For leadership positions, however, the cards tell a different story: women represent about 42% of junior faculty, and that number dramatically decreases with seniority. In nearly one-third of the institutional report cards, less than 10% of senior faculty recruits were women. Their representation as full professors is even worse. Women were underrepresented as external seminar program speakers and on decision-making committees for faculty promotions, institutional strategy, and graduate student appointment or recruitment. In addition, most institutions did not have policies that promote gender diversity on committees or to encourage women-friendly workplaces.
Although it is important to continue recruiting women into STEM fields, a bigger issue appears to be retention and promotion of women into positions that allow them more influence, resources, and opportunity to conduct high-impact research.
There are signs of hope. Although they are in the minority, some institutions reported creative, proactive solutions, policies, and programs to support women, many of which could easily be implemented by others. These include flexible working hours, family bonuses, and fellowships that allow women to delegate their administrative duties elsewhere and focus on research.
It also appears that simply asking institutions to fill out the report card draws their attention to gender disparities, encouraging them to identify areas for improvement and potentially inspiring them to make changes. When the report card was first required for funding applications, many institutions said they had no way to find the information needed to complete it. Today, more institutions are tracking information on gender equity and it is more easily accessible.
Achieving gender equity in STEM is possible. It will take strong leadership and creative follow through. We will need dedicated collaboration on a large scale. Change will require constant, deliberate attention on the part of institutional leadership, governments, and stakeholders. When the best minds are recruited and supported in their scientific inquiries, more cures will be found, more discoveries made, and countless lives improved. It won’t be easy, but at some point each of us will become a patient, and we all deserve what the best minds can bring to bear on the future of science and medicine.
Whitney H. Beeler, M.D., is the chief resident in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Michigan. Reshma Jagsi, M.D., is a professor of radiation oncology and deputy chair of the radiation oncology department at the University of Michigan, and director of the university’s Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences. Susan L. Solomon, J.D., is the chief executive officer and founder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute.