February 2012

Task force report: ASBMB women in academe

Number of women among biochemistry
teacher–scholar applicants is low relative
to the number among postdoctoral trainees


The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, for the first time, has surveyed members and directors of departments with biochemistry Ph.D. programs about women in academic biochemistry, complementing a 1986 informal analysis.

President Suzanne Pfeffer appointed a task force (Elizabeth C. Theil, chair; Melanie Cobb; Judith P. Klinman; Frederick R. Maxfield; Janet L. Smith; and JoAnne Stubbe); Massachusetts-based consulting firm AltshulerGray provided advice and conducted the survey. Questions were targeted mainly toward practicing biochemists, traditionally the dominant membership of the society, rather than biochemists in training. Respondents’ comments indicated their appreciation of the opportunity to express opinions on the subject; a few respondents provided examples of inequalities in departmental resource allocation for women. 

About the survey participants 

Fig. 1

There were 1,780 responses from 11,262 members and 48 responses from 204 chairs and directors — typical response rates for society member surveys, according to AltshulerGray.

Of the respondents, 45 percent were women, 54 percent men, 88 percent Ph.D.s, 85 percent in academe, and 72 percent in tenured or tenure-track positions. The respondents reported that, on average, 61 percent of their professional effort is devoted to research, with the remainder being teaching, administration and other activities. Family issues were major concerns among all respondents, of whom 75 percent had children and 90 percent were or had been married. Below is an overview of the data showing the largest differences between men and women biochemists and some of the factors that influence career choices.

Teacher–scholars in academic biochemistry 

Teacher–scholars, who have the largest impact on the training of biochemists and future planning, are tenured or tenure-track faculty members engaging in teaching, research and institutional governance. By contrast, nontenure-track faculty members, an expanding academic group, are involved in either research or teaching.

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.

To understand the abrupt change in the distribution of women and men biochemists in training and as teacher–scholars, the task force makes the following three recommendations:

  1. 1. Survey ASBMB on the progress of women in academe on a regular basis.  
  2. 2. Survey younger biochemists to determine the factors influencing their career choices and the places trained women and men biochemists are practicing in addition to academe.  
  3. 3. Analyze ways to make academia more acceptable to young women in biochemistry (changes to departmental academic culture, family-friendly policies, and so forth).  

gender_survey_theilElizabeth Theil (etheil@chori.org) is a senior scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

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