Although females outnumber men in biology at both undergrad and Ph.D. levels, in faculty positions, they are still underrepresented.

A new study in PLOS Biology has found that females in molecular biology, particularly in genomics, are underrepresented in large teams. This may be an indication of a negative cultural milieu in this particular subfield, the researchers said.

On the positive side, the researchers found that female faculty (for the six different disciplines in the study) have as many collaborators, or co-authors, as male faculty and that female faculty tend to return to the same collaborators a little less than males.

Cooresponding author Luís A. Nunes Amaral, a professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering, said:

“Our findings in molecular biology, particularly genomics, are what surprised us the most. There is a lot of research money in this high-profile area, and women are not represented proportionally. This raises all sorts of questions as to what kind of cultural environment has been created in the field."

Lees Likely To Co-author

Amaral and Teresa K. Woodruff, a Northwestern Medicine reproductive biologist, analyzed collaboration patterns of nearly 4,000 US faculty, who’ve collectively written 420,000 papers, to determine how experiences of STEM female and male faculty vary.

Caroline Wagner, of Ohio State University, Columbus, who was not involved in the study, writes in an accompanying commentary:

“One factor remains fairly constant: women are underrepresented in terms of authorships, including first and/or last authorships (whichever is more prestigious), coauthorships, and in the granting of scientific prizes.

Overall, the more elite the scientist, the more likely they are to work at the international level; however, female collaborators are less likely to be working internationally and are more likely to collaborate locally. This means that they are also less likely to coauthor with top scholars.”

The study also found evidence that female scientists are more open to novel collaborations than their male counterparts, a behavior that was shown to correlate with producing work of greater impact.

Wagner notes that previous studies and the new findings from Amaral’s group serve to remind us that the legacy of Rosalind Franklin, whose crucial work on the structure of the DNA double helix over 60 years ago was notoriously underappreciated at the time, lives on.

She concludes:

“Perhaps deep in our collective genome there is some instruction to “treat females differently.” As Joseph Campbell pointed out, “woman is life, and man is the servant of life…” Perhaps that instruction has been foundational to our species’ survival. The opposite may now be true: treating women the same is essential to our survival. Just as many of our other learned behaviors make social life possible, so treating the work of women scientists as equally worthy of consideration will not only make social, academic, and intellectual life possible; it offers the possibility of improving our species’ chances of long-term survival. It requires that people consciously choose to seek out, honor, and support the work of women. Perhaps then, Rosalind’s ghost can rest."

Zeng XHT, Duch J, Sales-Pardo M, Moreira JAG, Radicchi F, Ribeiro HV, et al. (2016) Differences in Collaboration Patterns across Discipline, Career Stage, and Gender PLoS Biol 14(11): e1002573. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002573

Wagner C (2016) Rosalind’s Ghost: Biology, Collaboration, and the Female PLoS Biol 14(11): e2001003. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2001003

Image: Joi Ito/Flickr

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