Association for Women in Science (AWIS) Speaks at Penn; Focus on Retaining Women in STEM

By Liisa Hantsoo, Ph.D.

Is funding bias a factor that’s holding women back in STEM? What really accounts for the wage gap between men and women in the sciences? Are there gender disparities not just in wage, but in scholarly recognition? These were a few of the complex issues that Cindy Simpson, M.Ed., Chief Business Development Officer of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), explored in her May 8 talk at the University of Pennsylvania. The talk, organized by Penn’s Biomedical Postdoctoral Council (BPC), attracted a large crowd of postdocs interested in learning more about issues that women in science face.

Cindy Simpson of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) speaks to postdocs at UPenn. (Image Credit: L. Hantsoo)

Cindy Simpson of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) addresses questions from a packed audience of postdocs at UPenn. (Image Credit: L. Hantsoo)

Simpson began her talk with information pulled from a recent U.S. report, “Understanding The Gender Gap in STEM Fields” (1). The report found that while women are earning terminal degrees in STEM in increasing numbers, women only hold 35% of tenured and tenure-track positions, and only 17% of full professor positions in STEM across the U.S. This large drop-off from junior level faculty to full professor is puzzling, and is currently under investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. One potential factor that could account for the drop-off is funding bias. However, data from the NSF and NIH indicate that while women are marginally more successful than men in obtaining NSF funding, and men are more successful than women in obtaining NIH funding, the numbers are not significantly different. The lack of apparent bias, Simpson asserted, is due to interventions that have been put into place to reduce bias in funding awards.

Simpson went on to explore the wage gap. She presented recent data from the Bureau of Labor & Statistics (2) demonstrating a gender gap across STEM professions. What accounts for this wage gap? Simpson presented a few hypotheses. First, it could be that men and women accept positions in different industries, with accompanying differences in pay scale. Alternatively, there may be a difference in hours that women are able to work, given caregiving demands. This can be caregiving for children, or caregiving for other family members, such as an ailing parent. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, these caregiving responsibilities often fall to women, and women are more likely to work part-time to account for family responsibilities. Simpson referred to this as a “career cost of childbearing.” Department of Labor statistics estimate that over their careers, women lose $142, 693 in wages, $131,351 in Social Security, and $50,000 in pension income due to caregiving responsibilities (3). This sums to a loss of over a quarter million dollars for the average woman over her lifespan. With sobering numbers like this, steps need to be taken to investigate reasons for the pay gap and to work to reduce it.

While the “career cost of childbearing” may be one contributor to the wage gap, it does not fully account for it. A study by Cornell economists found that 41% of the wage gap remained undetermined, after accounting for job type, education level, and number of children, among other factors (4). Digging down to search for the roots of the wage gap, some researchers have proposed that differences in scholarly recognition may play a role. Data collected by AWIS indicates women are significantly more likely to receive teaching and service awards, versus scholarly awards, compared to men (5). This is across physical, mathematical, biological and life sciences. As scholarly awards are often an important part of the promotion and tenure process, women may be at a disadvantage in this respect. AWIS proposes that interventions to promote more equal recognition in scholarly awards and prizes may help women to overcome barriers to success in STEM. Such interventions might include 1) Training award review committees in recognizing unconscious bias; 2) Changing language in recommendation letters for awards or promotions; or 3) Encouraging women to self-nominate or reapply for awards after an initial rejection. Interventions to reduce unconscious bias have shown an impact on award recognition for women, according to AWIS. Attention to language in recommendation letters is also key – the Gender Bias Calculator provides a useful metric for determining how many “masculine” versus “feminine” words are contained in a recommendation letter (6). Masculine words tend to be standout words (e.g. “extraordinary,” “unparalleled”), ability words (“intelligent,” “bright”), and research words (“data,” “method”), while feminine words are teaching words (“educate,” “train”) and “grindstone” words (“dependable,” “careful”). In the hiring and promotion process, as well as selecting award or grant recipients, masculine words may be more favored by selection committees. Thus, letter writers should be careful to use a mix of words that will be beneficial to the applicant. Finally, Simpson indicated that women may get in their own way by not self-nominating themselves for awards, which men are more likely to do. A woman may not apply for an award in the first place if she does not feel that she meets 100% of the selection criteria, while men are more likely to apply even if they do not fully meet the criteria. Women are also less likely to reapply for an award after a rejection, compared to men.

Cindy Simpson of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) speaks to postdocs at UPenn. (Image Credit: L. Hantsoo)

Cindy Simpson of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) speaks to postdocs at UPenn. (Image Credit: L. Hantsoo)

Simpson’s talk sparked a lively Q & A session, with postdocs asking important questions about how we can start to make changes, and whether faculty and administrators are aware of these issues. Simpson was happy with the discussion that her talk initiated, saying “I’m pleased with the number of students and postdoctoral researchers from UPenn who understand the need to continue to advocate for positive system transformation in the STEM community. The need for diversity at all levels in STEM is imperative and I’m confident that changes will continue to take place, both at UPenn and beyond, to reduce the attrition from the STEM pipeline.”

The talk and Q & A was followed by a roundtable lunch, in which female faculty spoke in small groups with postdocs about issues like work-life balance and succeeding in STEM. Participating faculty included Dr. Kristen Lynch, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics; Dr. Rebeccca Simmons, Professor of Neonatology; Dr. Sara Pinney, Professor of Pediatrics; and Dr. Susan Weiss, Professor of Microbiology, as well as Dr. Kate Kadash-Edmondson, Senior Editor at Write Science Right. These small group discussions initiated meaningful dialogue between junior career women and more established senior faculty in how to promote and retain a robust STEM workforce. We hope to continue this dialogue; please post your comments in the BPC Newsletter blog comment section below (7). Also, stay tuned to the BPC website and Facebook page (8) to learn about future events related to women in STEM. The next BPC-sponsored Women in Science event will be a panel discussion with scientists and administrators at Penn, in October. Finally, check the AWIS National (9) and local (10) websites for more resources relevant to women in science.












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