February 2012

Task force report: ASBMB women in academe

There are markedly fewer women than men among teacher–scholars in biochemistry, a sharp contrast with all other groups of biochemists in academe (Fig. 1). Particularly striking is the constancy in the distribution of female and male teacher–scholars as applicants (27:73), interviewees (34:66) and appointees (28:72), as well as tenured academic biochemists (28:72). Thus, once women enter the teacher–scholar pool, these data show, hiring and success are comparable for men and women biochemists. The barriers that inhibit women biochemists from entering the teacher–scholar applicant pool need to be identified. 

Factors influencing career choices 


When asked to rank factors according to how much they influenced career decisions, men and women biochemists of all ages placed the same four factors at the top: departmental academic culture, child-care responsibilities, spouse or partner work obligations and work–life balance. (Child bearing itself was not listed as a choice because of the small fraction of a professional lifetime affected.) The relative importance of each factor was strikingly different for men and women. The departmental academic culture was five times as important to men as childcare responsibilities, whereas for women they were equally important (Fig. 2).

When asked if they agreed that there was a well-defined mechanism for raising concerns about career progress, only 22 percent of respondents under the age of 50 agreed. When asked if they agreed that policies and criteria for tenure and promotion addressed nonacademic responsibilities fairly, only 27 percent agreed. Agreement on the availability of information about the tenure-decision mechanism and the equality of applying criteria for tenure, equality of space and resource distribution was lower for women than men.
The striking and sudden imbalance in the distribution of men and women biochemists (Fig. 1) occurs at a point on the career trajectory between postdoctoral training and applying for teacher–scholar positions. Among postdoctoral trainees, numbers of men and women are equal, but among teacher–scholar applicants, men outnumber women 3 to 1. Part of the reason for this difference may be the different weight men and women place on departmental culture, child-care responsibilities and partner or spouse work obligations (Fig. 2). Men rank the influence of departmental culture on career decision as five times more important than child-care responsibilities, whereas women rank the influence as equal. 

Family-friendly policies 

Men and women rank family-related polices the same regardless of age. ASBMB members ranked the availability of child-care facilities as the most important factor influencing career decisions, followed by resources that address two-career problems, family leave time and delay of the tenure clock after childbirth. Chairs and directors selected the same four categories, but tenure clock after childbirth and child-care facilities were ranked equally. 

Availability of some family-friendly policies is limited. Family leave time is common, but adequate child-care facilities and resources to address two-career problems for couples are rarer.

The dramatic differences observed in the distribution of women and men between the final periods of training 1:1) and applying, interviewing and hiring for teacher–scholar positions (1:3) could be caused by the different weight men and women place on factors influencing career decisions. On average, women place approximately equal weight on professional environment, child care, and spouses’ or partners’ work responsibilities when making career decisions. Men, on the other hand, place a very strong emphasis on professional environment relative to child-care responsibilities and spouses’ or partners’ work obligations.

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I have been working as a Biochemist although I received an MD degree in Venezuela. I not only received scholarship from the University of Zulia to specialize in Biochemistry, but I have been working in a Research Institute adscribed to the Faculty of Medicine in that University for almost 50 y, promoted from Assistant to Associate and then Full Professor without any gender problem. Moreover I received grants to do my research and have been elected Director of the Institute for two 3-year periods, and elected Editor in Chief of a journal of the Institue. Dr. Elena Ryder


I would like to first identify myself as a 56 years old female lab scientist holding a university tenured position. This report has certainly solidified the long-speculated cause of gender differences in university tenured position. I guess the ultimate goal of this survey is to help young women in their career development. I really like to help young women and this is the only reason that I spent time writing this. Editor's note to the writer of the above excerpted comment: Please email your full comment or a letter to the editor to asbmbtoday@asbmb.org. I'm afraid half of your comment was cut off, and we'd like to publish the entire thing. Thank you, and sorry for the technical limitation.



  • The more things change the more they remain the same. It shows the inherent bias of academics against women when considering biochemists for permanent faculty positions.

  • This shows the current trend in academe. With the decreasing number of tenure-track positions, this discrepancy is bound to increase. This difference is added to by the increasing struggle to obtain funding. Many of the talented women biochemists are leaving the academe and bench to take more family-friendly jobs. Though many universities as well as the government mention about recruiting of women scientists, unless something concrete is mentioned in the bylaws will this situation improve.

    Research fellow

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