How to encourage female scientists to stay on

The number of female scientists is growing rapidly, but many female scientists abandon their careers because they feel pessimistic about advancement.

According to a new study, placing more women in decision-making roles in the scientific world on the teams that organize symposia could offer an effective and simple step forward.

Over the last forty years the number of women studying life sciences has increased dramatically. In 1970 just 13% of life science Ph.Ds were awarded to female students, compared to 52% in 2011.

However, the National Research Council reported in 2010 that “women continued to be underrepresented among academic faculty relative to the number receiving science and engineering degrees.”

A study, published in the journal mbio and led by Arturo Casadevall, M.D., Ph.D. professor and chair of microbiology & immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, puts forward a strategy that would help female scientists climb the academic ladder.

Include more female scientists in symposia organizing teams

Dr. Casadevall said:

“Put at least one woman on the team that organizes a scientific symposium, and that team will be much more likely to invite female speakers.”

The team gathered and examined data from scientific symposia involving almost 2,000 speakers at three major general meetings sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology from 2011 to 2013. They concentrated on 112 teams that included at least one female scientist and 104 all-male “convener teams”.

They found that the all-male teams arranged speaking events in which 25% of speakers were female, compared to 43% when the teams included at least one woman. In other words, the proportion of female speakers was 72% higher when a woman was part of the convener team.

Dr. Casadevall said:

“Participating in meetings as a speaker is an extremely important factor for academic advancement. It’s a cascade effect – once you’re a speaker, your work is recognized, and you are more likely to make connections, have your work funded, and to be invited to speak again. And when you speak at a meeting, your reputation at your home institution also improves, and that helps your chances of promotion. So being an invited speaker at these meetings can definitely help advance your scientific career.”

Including women in the speaker selection process made it much less likely that all the speakers in a symposium were male. Approximately 30% of all symposia in which the selection teams consisted entirely of men had just male speakers. The figure dropped to 9% when the convener teams included at least one female.

Dr. Casadevall said “All-male sessions can be a turn-off for younger female scientists. They can send the message that the field has few women and that the upper echelons are dominated by men.”

The American Society for Microbiology has informed its members of these latest findings. Dr. Casadevall said “We’ll see if this translates into changes. The lack of women in leadership positions is a big problem in our field, but our findings suggest an easy remedy. I also hope that people in other fields take a look at this issue, and if they find they have similar gaps that they begin to talk about how to deal with it.”

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