Science and Medicine Need Women

young female scientist working pipetting in a lab

The first woman ever to be an institute director at NIH, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, took the helm at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in 1974. It took 17 more years for Dr. Bernadine Healy to become the first—and so far only—female director of NIH.

Today, I am one of 10 women serving as directors across the 27 institutes and centers at NIH—the most female directors NIH has ever seen at one time. Clearly, we’ve made some important gains, but as NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has recently said, “We have not achieved the point where women have their rightful place in leadership.”

It’s not that women aren’t interested in science or in leadership. Instead, studies are finding that far too many women who enter the field abandon their careers, whether due to hiring bias, the wage gap, or sexual or gender harassment. We’re all losing due to that loss of talent and intelligence.

Science needs women, not just as laborers, but as thinkers, innovators, and leaders. It needs our different perspectives and our thoughts on what issues are worthy of research. It needs our different ways of attacking problems, interpreting results, and considering solutions. It needs our diversity to help reduce bias and to yield findings that are more generalizable. The problems science addresses are too large, too multifaceted, and too important to tackle using the talents of only 50% of the population.

It’s a fertile and shifting time. We are becoming increasingly aware of the systemic barriers that keep society and science from benefiting from women’s full contributions, but awareness isn’t enough. We must act. We must change.

NIH is working to do that. New policies and practices are in place to address sexual harassment at NIH, at the institutions we support, and anywhere NIH research activities take place. And NIH has just completed a survey of all staff and contractors to help assess NIH workplace climate and harassment.

It’s a start.

I’m proud to be a part of a group tasked with recommending what comes next. As part of the NIH Director’s Advisory Committee Working Group on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment, I have the opportunity to help redress wrongs and improve engagement. Together my colleagues and I will be looking for ways the institution can promote a safe and inclusive environment.

On a personal level, I work to effect that change by nudging my colleagues gently or, if needed, bluntly, when implicit bias, traditional thinking, or even malignant motives stand in the way of fair judgment or women’s rightful progression in science. And I try to engage all my colleagues, regardless of gender, in working toward ways to dismantle the barriers that hold women back.

Just as with scientific research itself, we need everyone’s full participation in the solution.

What guidance do you have for me about how to take up this important mantle?

Learn More
Women scientists at NLM and throughout history.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

7 thoughts on “Science and Medicine Need Women”

  1. Patti – Thank you for taking on this important issue!!! I also really like the perspective taken in the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report on Sexual Harassment (https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24994/sexual-harassment-of-women-climate-culture-and-consequences-in-academic). They talk about sexual harassment being just the tip of the iceberg and that the sources of sexual harassment are the much bigger and less visible problems “below the waterline” that make for a frigid climate that discourage women (see lots of great resources at https://www.belowthewaterline.org/ and the original figure 2-2 on page 32 of the NASEM report). Increasing awareness of and putting policies in place to target those issues below the waterline is key to making a difference. In particular, I’d love to see more on supporting women with small children through NIH policies for women investigators as well as women participants on study sections.

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    1. Thanks, Wanda, for the comment and for all you do to advance women in biomedical informatics. Your suggestions of resources are great. And thanks for suggesting the focus on women with children (or for that matter, anyone with small children!). I’ll take that to the ACD working group meeting.

      Best,
      Patti

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  2. I echo Wanda’s recommendations and applause. Harassment in what have previously been male dominated fields is a problem, but women are still more likely to remove themselves from the workplace or delay or decline advancement due to family. Our society has been moving forward on these issues, but women still do the majority of child care and frequently to the detriment of their careers. If we want to get more women in positions of leadership, we need to provide all women with family support. Gyms and wellness programs at work, as well as an on location child care. More than anything though, we need to work on a culture where taking time off for self for family care is acceptable. Choosing to have a family should not be a disadvantage for women!

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    1. Thanks, Lindsay! I am really hearing about the importance of considering attention to children as a key intervention in recruiting and retaining a great scientific workforce!

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  3. Thanks for writing this Patti!

    It is important to continue to raise awareness about the issues that women face in biomedicine, especially in informatics. Some estimates I have seen suggest we are still only at about 15% women. Also, I think what is often underestimated and often goes under the radar, are the inequities. I found this recent article in the NYT “‘I Want What My Male Colleague Has, and That Will Cost a Few Million Dollars” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/18/magazine/salk-institute-discrimination-science.html incredibly insightful about the difficulties women have as they increase in seniority. Programs such as Drexel’s ELAM can help, kudos to them and others for making leadership training available to women. https://drexel.edu/medicine/academics/womens-health-and-leadership/elam/about-elam/

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  4. I like what Melissa mentions and I would be particularly interested to see blind peer review in informatics conferences and journals as we don’t see many new people. I want to stress not that we as “women” need to be in leadership but we as scientists/innovators need to put our work out there more. I like the old and excellent stuff but I would really like new and excellent stuff too (to put it less scientifically). Kate

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