Here’s How to Really Improve Gender Diversity in STEM Research

BU engineer and peers recommend formal policies that could level the playing field between men and women

By Kat McAlpine for The Brink

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“Oh, that’s terrible, but that doesn’t happen here.”

When it comes to gender-based harassment in academic research, Joyce Wong says, it’s surprising how often people insist that while it’s happening at other institutions, it’s not happening at theirs. “A lot of times, if you don’t see it directly, you don’t think it’s happening,” Wong says. “But I would urge people to look a bit more carefully, try to be more attuned, and ask yourself: could this be happening in my lab or department?”

Wong, a Boston University College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering and materials science engineering, is a coauthor on a new consensus paper published in Science describing a series of policy frameworks that could increase gender diversity in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) research workforce. The paper, whose lead authors are researchers from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Johns Hopkins University, arose from discussions during a December 2018 workshop at Cold Spring that focused on the issue of gender diversity in biological science.

“Our goal was to think about how institutional change from the top down, starting with funding agencies, could play a role,” says Wong, a leader in STEM diversity at BU and the inaugural director of ARROWS: Advance, Recruit, Retain & Organize Women in STEM. “There was representation from foundations and government agencies at the conference as well. It was very much a working conference-we were really talking about hard issues.”

The good news, she says, is that positive changes are already on the way from some of the leading STEM organizations. The National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other funding agencies, like NASA and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, are all determined to do better. “They have their own working groups to make policy changes,” she says.

A big aspect of increasing gender diversity in STEM research, Wong says, is to acknowledge, and raise awareness of, unconscious bias. “We can’t just say unconscious bias doesn’t exist,” she says. “Specifically for women, it’s making sure we speak up and we recognize women for their accomplishments. Part of that is having more recognition, especially for the nonpromotable work that women tend to do a lot more of.” Examples of that work are service-oriented tasks such as ordering team lunches or taking notes during meetings.

The Brink talked with Wong to learn more about what she and her coauthors recommend in their paper, which outlines the group’s “potentially high-impact policy changes…that can be rapidly implemented to counteract barriers facing women in science.”

“The thing that kills me is…if there’s someone who has in any way been prevented from going into STEM [because of gender discrimination], that’s a tragedy,” Wong says. “Strategically, as a country we can’t afford that. We have to be proactive.”

Six top takeaways from the Science paper:

1. Sexual harassment should be treated as severely as scientific misconduct

Many funding agencies require that institutions receiving grants have a framework in place for reporting, investigating, and punishing research misconduct. The same rigor should be required for reporting, investigating, and punishing sexual harassment. Researchers should also be mandated to disclose to funding agencies and potential institutional employers any harassment findings or settlements.

2. Institutions should protect the careers of harassment victims

If a researcher is ousted from employment or funding because of harassment findings, their victims and other members of their lab are often unintentionally impacted by loss of funding and other mechanisms.

3. To eliminate bias, emphasize transparency

To end gender-specific disparities, institutions should be more transparent about how resources-like start-up packages, salaries, and internal grant funding-are allocated among employees.

4. Establish family-friendly policies to equalize career impacts

Researchers are evaluated for promotion based on how long they were in a postdoctoral position, how many years it’s been since they completed their PhD, the amount of time it took to get their first grant, or how many papers they’ve published. But pregnancy, child-rearing, or other family-related matters can disrupt the timeline and disproportionately benefit men. Gender-neutral family leave policies would equalize responsibilities between men and women. Formalized policies around flexible working hours and telecommuting could allow women-and men-to better balance their careers and life at home.

5. Make career advancement opportunities more fair

Women spend more time teaching and doing institutional service, factors that are not of typical importance for promotion decisions. Instead, publications in high-impact journals are often the preferred measure for evaluating a researcher’s success. Yet female authors still remain underrepresented in the highest-profile journals. Further, promotion panels should be a balance of both men and women, since all-male panels are less likely to promote women in academia.

6. Prioritize mentorship

Funding institutions like the Wellcome Trust, the Max Planck Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the NSF, and the NIH have created new policies to emphasize the importance of career enhancement and mentorship plans as scorable aspects of grant proposals. Making this a criterion for all grant applications, and making mentorship part of annual reviews and promotion evaluations, could encourage institutions to prioritize health training environments within their research departments.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. You can follow Boston University College of Engineering at @BUCollegeofENG and Joyce Wong at @profjoycewong on Twitter.

Read the full paper and its recommendations here.

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