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

Boston University engineer Joyce Wong is a coauthor on a new Science paper suggesting policies that could increase gender diversity in the STEM research workforce. Photo by Dave Green

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.

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