Women bioscientists still face challenges to upward mobility, top NIH official says in campus talk

Vivian Pinn

Could the federal government withhold research funding from universities that aren't doing enough to advance the careers of women in science? Vivian Pinn, MD, director of the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health, said she isn't sure whether it's legal—or even the right thing to do—but it's one of several possibilities that will be examined in the coming months.

The question was sparked by a recent report from the National Academies titled "Beyond bias and barriers" that calls on universities, professional societies, government agencies and Congress to eliminate gender bias in university hiring and promotion practices in science and engineering.

Pinn, who spoke at the medical school Oct. 17 on the state of women in biomedical careers, said one of the report's recommendations was to "investigate how well relevant laws are being upheld" by science agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, which this year oversaw more than $27 billion in medical research grants. The recommendation triggered questions as to whether the NIH could use Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination, to withhold research funds from universities that didn't have a certain percentage of women faculty members.

Pinn said she is assembling committees to examine all of the report's findings and recommendations, but expressed mixed feelings about the possibility of using Title IX to force universities to hire and promote more women. "If you're in academia, you don't want the government dictating what you do," she said. But, she added, as the only woman and the only African-American in her 1962 medical school class, "I know many doors were opened to me and people like me because someone had to make sure that opportunities were made available to everyone.

"I'm hoping universities are going to be responding on their own and looking for ways to monitor and improve the situation," she added.

Among other duties, Pinn's office ensures the inclusion of women in NIH-funded clinical trials, serves as the focal point for research in women's health issues and helps advance the careers of women in science and medicine.

Pinn's presentation, sponsored by the medical school's Office of Diversity and Leadership, focused on the latter aspect of her job and included a statistical snapshot of women in biomedicine. She noted that in 1960 women comprised 8 percent of all scientists; by 2003, that figure had risen to 37 percent.

Still, despite the increase, they aren't making it to the upper levels of their professions. Statistics from the Association of American Medical Colleges show that while women account for 47 percent of all medical school graduates, they hold few senior positions. For instance, women make up just 15 percent of those with the rank of full professor. She also noted that of the 1,971 clinical department chairs at U.S. medical schools, women occupy 176 of those positions.

Pinn said the percentage of women on medical faculties has been increasing by about 1 percent a year, meaning that women aren't likely to hit the 50-percent mark until around 2025.

"It isn't just that there is a 'leaky pipeline'" in channeling women toward biomedical careers, she said. "There are other factors that are contributing to the differences in progress of women and men in the academic ranks."

A task force she convened identified the main barriers for women as recruiting practices, a lack of mentors for women, a disproportionate share of family-care responsibilities, sex discrimination or harassment and a lack of gender and racial sensitivity.

Her office has tried to help dismantle these barriers through several initiatives, such as funding for mentorship programs that support women early in their biomedical careers and a re-entry program for scientists, regardless of gender, who have interrupted their careers for family reasons. Her office also encourages interdisciplinary research efforts, including one at Stanford that provides mentoring to young scientists in bench-to-bedside research in women's health.

Asked what it will take for universities to make meaningful changes for women interested in science, Pinn said that if a few set the example, others will follow. "It will take some institution with forward-thinking leadership that's willing to experiment," she said.