High-Ranking Male Biology Professors Train Significantly Fewer Female Students

This might help explain why fewer women than men go on to hold biology professorships

Photo: Sigrid Gombert/Corbis

Graduate biology classes are split about 50-50 between the sexes. When it comes to university faculty positions, however, the numbers shift: only 18 percent of full professors in the biological sciences are women. 

The cause of this gender disparity is the subject of much debate, but a new study sheds light on one possible cause. Elite male biology professors, it turns out, train significantly fewer women than men in their labs, MIT News reports. Since training under these professors gives applicants a significant advantage on job hunts, equally qualified women might be entering the academic market at a disadvantage, compared to men who have a powerful mentor's name to attach to their resumes. 

The researchers arrived at these conclusions after accumulating data from more than 2,000 labs at 24 top biology institutions. They used professors' webpages to assess the gender breakdown of the professors' grad students and postdocs. Female graduate students and postdocs made up about 50 percent of female professors' lab members, the researchers found. In labs run by male professors, on the other hand, while about half of graduate students were women, just 36 percent of postdocs were.

Breaking the data down further, MIT News explains, the researchers found that elite male professors—those that had been awarded a Nobel Prize or another prestigious award— demonstrated an even more skewed gender bias:

In the labs of male Nobel laureates, male grad students outnumbered female grad students by two to one, and male postdocs outnumbered female postdocs by more than three to one. 

“Looking at this small subset of labs, you get a very different picture than you do when you look at the field as a whole,” [study author Jason] Sheltzer says.

However, Sheltzer and Smith found no such imbalances in labs run by elite female faculty members. Female HHMI investigators ran labs with 48 percent female postdocs, compared with 46 percent in labs run by other female scientists.

The team didn't look into the cause of the bias, though they speculate that it could be that women avoid applying to those highly competitive labs or that elite male professors have a conscious or unconscious bias. Or it could be some combination of both factors. At Slate, however, Jane Hu offers a more disturbing possible explanation: 

When I interviewed nine female science students about their own experiences, they spoke to an alternate theory. Three of the students spontaneously disclosed that they or a close friend had been sexually harassed or assaulted by lab-mates or professors. The threat of harassment or assault can directly affect the decisions women make about their academic plans: Anonymous science blogger Acclimatrix wrote earlier this month that being harassed by a colleague led her to turn down a potentially career-advancing research trip with him because she felt unsafe.

Graduate students talk among themselves about such bad experiences. In some cases, Slate suggests, it could be that women are simply avoiding labs that are rumored to be hostile toward females—including elite labs. 

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