Vol. 61, No. 1 | February 2016

Essay Discussion

We are hoping this essay will start a discussion within the community of animal behaviorists about what we can do as individuals and as a society to reduce the attrition of women in biology. Please send comments to Shelley Adamo ([email protected]) and Sue Bertram ([email protected]). We will pick representative comments to publish in the next newsletter - and Shelley may weigh in as well.

Hypercompetition for Academic Positions Promotes the Attrition of Women in Biology: Evidence from Canada

Shelley A. Adamo
Dept. Psychology and Neuroscience
Dalhousie University
Halifax, NS
B3H 3X5

e-mail: [email protected]
phone: 902 494-8853
fax: 902 494-6585

Sixty years ago, female professors were a rare sight in Canada (AUCC 2007). Since then, women have entered the professoriate, many becoming outstanding scientists and scholars. However, this progress appears to have stalled in some disciplines, including biology. In part, this plateau is an artifact of the boom/bust nature of university hiring over the last 60 years. However, other forces, such as biases against women in science and a lack of support for mothers, discourage women from achieving faculty level positions (Expert Panel 2012). These issues are exacerbated by the current intense competition for faculty positions.

Women’s Movement into the Professoriate has Stalled in Biology

The years from 1955 to the mid 1970’s were ones of expansion for the Canadian university system. Full time faculty numbers doubled between 1955 and 1965 (from 6,000 to 14,000), and doubled again by 1974 (30,000). This hiring binge led to departments filled with young professors, and by 1976 about 1/2 of all professors were under the age of 40 (all data from AUCC 2007).

During this period, employment at an academic institution was virtually guaranteed for a talented academic. Unfortunately, this era preceded the time of increased enrolment of women in doctoral programs. In the 1960’s only about 8% of all doctoral students were women (AUCC 2007). However, by the 1980’s the number of women awarded doctorates was increasing steadily and by 1990 about 1/3 of all doctorates were awarded to women (AUCC 2007). Unfortunately by then the hiring situation had changed dramatically.

Between 1992 and 1998 there was a net decrease in the number of full time faculty across Canada. Unfortunately this coincided with a sharp rise in both the number of women doctoral candidates as well as a large increase in the total number of graduating doctoral students. By the 1990’s, there were many more doctoral candidates than jobs (all data from AUCC 2007). No longer were talented doctoral candidates assured an academic position.

The lack of hiring during this period helps explain the previous lag between the number of women gaining doctorates in biology and the number of women professors in the biological sciences. However, it does not explain the present disparity between the proportion of women achieving doctorate degrees and the proportion of women assistant professors. Although women have been awarded about half of all doctoral degrees in biology in Canada since 2004 [when international students, who are usually not eligible to apply for Canadian faculty positions, are excluded, King 2008; also see Table 2.7, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) 2010] they account for only about 37% of assistant professors, and this number has not changed for over a decade (see below). These data suggest an attrition rate of about 15% (relative to men) for women doctoral holders in biology. This phenomenon is not unique to biology. Since 1998, the proportion of women completing doctoral programs has outpaced the relative increase in the appointment of women to new faculty positions across all disciplines (AUCC 2007). The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT 2008 Equity Review) also remarked on this lack of progress and concluded that women’s gains at the assistant professor level had stalled. Biology is consistent with this larger trend.

Worse, there is evidence that the proportion of women achieving a faculty position in biology is falling relative to men. Although the proportion of female assistant professors in the broadly defined field of the biological sciences (i.e. including biomedical fields) is higher (37%) than the proportion of women at the associate level (28.8%; CAUT 2013/2014), the trend in some subfields is in the opposite direction. For example, in ecology and evolution, the proportion of women enrolled in a doctoral program in 2004, 2008, and 2010 was about 60% (CAUT 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012). In 2010, the latest year data were available, the proportion of female assistant professors in this area was 38.5% (n=39), but the proportion of women at the associate professor level was almost 10% higher (46.7%, n=45, CAUT, 2014). These results suggest a possible decline in the proportion of women Ph.D.s achieving tenure-track positions in this area. However, given the relatively small number of faculty in this sample, it is possible that it is a statistical anomaly (i.e. overly influenced by a small number of recent hires). Looking across biology departments in Canada, the proportion of assistant professors that are women is about the same as the proportion that are associate professors (associate professors: 33.4% n=377, assistant professors: 36.4%, n=151; data from 34 Canadian university biology departments). These data also suggest that the percentage of assistant professors that are women has not increased over the last several years, despite the continued increase in the proportion of doctoral degrees in biology awarded to women (NSERC 2010). These data support the contention that the attrition of women biologists is increasing.

Family responsibilities and problems with biases against women in science have plagued women academics for many years (e.g. see Mason et al., 2013). There is no evidence that these problems have become worse over the last decade, in fact, provisions for faculty with families have improved (Adamo, 2013). Why then do relatively fewer women appear to be reaching the professoriate? One aspect of academic life that has become worse over the last decade is the competition for academic positions (Iqbal, 2012). Various estimates exist, but it appears that fewer than 20% of doctorate holders in the biological sciences achieve a tenure track position in North America (Maldonado et al. 2013; Polka 2014; Sauermann and Roach 2012), although a tenure-track position is the goal for the majority of doctoral students regardless of discipline (Stanford et al. 2009). This hypercompetition for jobs exacerbates the effects of bias and family on women, because any reduction in career progression (e.g. due to reducing research time in order to raise children, or being overlooked because of bias) will have magnified effects when competition is severe.

Hypercompetition for positions is likely to have other negative effects on women biologists. Research has shown that when success in an academic subject is thought to require exceptional talent, women tend to eschew those areas (Leslie et al., 2015). Both men and women are less likely to believe that women can be exceptional; women are more likely to doubt their own abilities (Leslie et al., 2015). Given the low number of biology graduate students that achieve an academic position, graduate students may begin to perceive academic biology as a career that requires special ‘innate’ talent in order to succeed. The work of Leslie et al. (2015) would suggest that such a view would disproportionately discourage women from pursuing biology, even though they are equally talented.

Should We Reduce the Number of Graduate Students in Biology?

The hypercompetition for faculty positions could be reduced by decreasing the number of doctoral students. This could have a positive effect on the recruitment of women, by placing competition for entry into a biological career earlier in an individual’s training (e.g. entry into graduate school instead of at the level of a tenure-track position). This timing, similar to that in medicine, would allow competition for an academic position to occur prior to family formation, reducing the handicap women face due to family issues (Adamo 2013). It is this timing that may help medicine attract and retain women despite this profession being stressful, family unfriendly and suffering from many of the same bias issues as biology (Adamo 2013). Lately there has been discussion as to whether fewer PhDs should be trained (Smaglik 2014; Polka 2014; Martinson 2011) and the issue is controversial (e.g. supporting a limit: Alberts et al. 2014, Bourne 2013; Cyranoski et al. 2011; against a limit: Marder 2014, Kelly and Marians 2014). There are perverse incentives that reward faculty for training large numbers of graduate students, regardless of demand (Alberts et al. 2014). Given the conflict of interest between faculty and trainees on this issue, a resolution is unlikely to come soon.

Moreover, there are legitimate concerns about limiting the number of PhDs trained. How would scarce positions be allocated? Is scientific ability obvious at the undergraduate level (Marder 2014)? Moreover, reducing the number of PhD candidates in a given country will only reduce competition for faculty positions if immigration laws restrict these positions to citizens of that country; otherwise a decline in PhDs would have a negligible effect, given the global glut of PhDs (Cyranoski et al. 2011).

Perhaps most importantly, we need information about the career destinations of the 80% of biology PhDs who do not find a tenure-track position. If students find exciting, fulfilling careers that they could not otherwise obtain without a PhD, then that would be reason to continue to train the current number of doctoral students. But if many students are ending up in jobs for which they did not need the PhD, then perhaps we should reconsider the number that we train, especially if many of those students feel misled and bitter (e.g. see Stanford et al. 2009). The evidence from North America and Europe suggests that finding suitable employment is an issue for people with doctorates (Alberts et al. 2014; Auriol 2010; Cyranoski et al. 2011; Munro 2015).

Given the uncertainty as to the career trajectories of biology PhDs, biology departments should canvas recent doctoral and post doctoral alumni to determine whether they found employment related to their training, and whether they thought their present job makes good use of their skills. Ideally organizations, such as the Animal Behaviour Society, could compile a list of alternative careers for trainees. Such initiatives are already underway within some programs (e.g. Smaglik 2015; Alum et al. 2014). Another option is for granting agencies (e.g. NSERC) to take a more active role in identifying alternative careers for biology graduates. NSERC requires grant applicants to track the outcome of their trainees, making it not too difficult to compile the types of careers doctoral students are finding. Then, graduate students and post docs could be provided with realistic options. Ideally, with this information, departmental graduate program committees could re-structure training to include co-op like placements for students who wish to explore non-academic career options within biology. Presenting options to graduate students may increase the retention of women by alleviating the ‘do-or-die’ stress that comes from the search for faculty positions without a back-up plan. Although the attrition of women is greatest between the post doc and first faculty position, a second point of attrition is the disproportionate number of women who do not complete the PhD. (Mason et al. 2013). Demonstrating that the PhD can lead to non-academic careers in biology could reduce this attrition.

Increasing Support for Families, Especially for Young Trainees, Could Reduce Attrition

Assuming that competition for academic jobs will remain fierce for the foreseeable future, how can we reduce the attrition of women in biology?

Motherhood is exhilarating, but it is also exhausting and time consuming. The same can be said of science, leading to an obvious conflict. In a variety of countries, including Canada, policies exist that attempt to reduce this conflict. However, this protection is weakest for biologists when they are at their most vulnerable – i.e. at their early training stages. Perhaps it is no surprise that the career periods with the greatest attrition of women (NSERC 2010; Mason et al. 2013), correspond to those periods with the least family support. For example, graduate students and post doctoral fellows are given the fewest provisions for maternity leave in the Canadian system. For graduate students there is little or no salary support. In other words, biology graduate students, who usually make less than $25,000 year (e.g. NSERC Doctoral award (PGS-D) $21,000/year; http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Students-Etudiants/PG-CS/BellandPostgrad-BelletSuperieures_eng.asp) are expected to survive with no salary during their maternity leave. Moreover, many of these same students are likely to be carrying debt from their undergraduate degree (Statistics Canada 2013). Some external scholarships (e.g. NSERC) allow students a 6 month paid maternity leave, providing some support. In the US the situation can be even worse; many women graduate students lose both salary and health care coverage during their maternity leaves (Leibfarth and Vermaak, 2011).

Once maternity leave is over, graduate students who wish to return to work must now search for low cost, high quality daycare. Fortunately, most Canadian universities have excellent on-site day care. Unfortunately, it is frequently unavailable (Expert Panel on Women in University Research 2012). Here are the encouraging words from the University of British Columbia's Dept. of Zoology’s handbook for graduate students regarding on-site daycare.
‘UBC has an excellent day care system, as well as after school care and summer care for school age children. Note that waitlists are up to 2 1/2 years, so plan to make other arrangements.’ [italics mine for emphasis] (http://www.zoology.ubc.ca/files/GettingStartedinZoologyAugust2013.pdf, p.6).
No other suggestions are offered in the handbook.

Women faculty members at Canadian universities have the most family support (e.g. see http://www.dal.ca/content/dam/dalhousie/pdf/hr/Academic-Staff-Relations/DFA-collective-agreement.pdf). They are entitled to paid maternity and parental leaves; moreover these leaves are typically topped up to 95% of their current salary by the university. Women also have the option of deferring tenure decisions. Moreover, NSERC allows mothers on maternity leave to extend the funding of their grant for up to 2 years. NSERC also instructs committees to be sensitive to maternity leaves, although no explicit instructions are given to committees (e.g. assessing productivity over the number of years of the grant minus the maternity leave) http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/NSERC-CRSNG/Policies-Politiques/assesscontrib-evalcontrib_eng.asp. These policies probably contribute to the retention rate of women at tenure time (e.g. NSERC 2010, Fig. 4.6), despite potential issues of bias against women at the tenure level in Canada (Acker et al., 2012). Correlation is not causality, but these data are consistent with the hypothesis that family support helps to retain women in science.
The lack of support for mothers in science during the early training years is likely to leave women with the false impression that science is not compatible with motherhood. However, motherhood can be combined with science of the highest quality (Connelly and Ghodsee 2014). Two recent Nobel Prize winners (Carol Greider and May-Britt Moser), both biologists, did some of their prize-winning science while raising small children (Greider 2010; http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2014/may-britt-moser-interview.html). Few careers outside of academia offer the same level of independence, scope for creativity, the excitement of discovery, as well as sabbaticals, job security, excellent pay (in Canada), and benefits. Women considering changing careers because they perceive science as family-unfriendly should take a hard look at the alternatives (e.g. medicine, http://www.physicianhealth.com/sites/default/files/Medicine%20and%20Motherhood-Can%20We%20Talk.pdf) before hanging up their lab coat.

Encourage Fathers to Participate in Childrearing

The involvement of fathers in childrearing is increasing (Damaske et al. 2014). When fathers increase their contribution to childrearing, a mother's ability to remain competitive increases (Economist, 2015). Increasing equality in childrearing may be an overlooked issue that could decrease the attrition of women in biology. However, to encourage men to fully participate in raising children, better parental leave policies for fathers are needed. Moreover, encouraging fathers to take parental leave in a hypercompetitive job market may require some persuasion. For example, in Sweden, couples that split their parental leave more evenly are paid an ‘equality bonus’ (Economist, 2015).

Are More Academic Jobs on the Horizon?

In 2013, about 1/3 of faculty in Canadian universities were 55 years or older (CAUT 2014/2015). This age structure suggests that the number of academic openings in biology could increase in the future. However, whether faculty will be replaced as they retire depends on a number of factors, such as whether universities refill tenure-track faculty positions or whether they instead hire more temporary sessional lecturers. Moreover, new technologies, such as on-line class offerings, may also lead to a reduction in the number of professors in the future (Duncan 2015). Furthermore, mandatory retirement is no longer in force, and, therefore it is difficult to predict when positions will become available. However the evidence suggests that few professors work past 70 years of age (AUCC 2007), suggesting that new openings should become available over the next few years. Therefore, there may be an opportunity to increase the recruitment of women into biology, if we make an effort today to retain them past the trainee stage (NSERC 2010).

Further Suggestions to Reduce Attrition of Women

A number of reports and papers have made important suggestions to improve the retention of women in science and/or academia (e.g. Expert Panel on Women in University Research 2012). Below are some suggestions of how academic biologists could increase retention of women in the discipline:

  1. Agitate for increased support for mothers, especially at the graduate and post doctoral level. High quality, affordable, on-site, available day care, allowing infants below the age of 12 months, with drop-in options, is essential. These facilities should also provide programs for school-aged children (e.g. after school care and holiday programs). The lack of childcare is a potential human rights issue in Canada (Monsebraaten 2014), as it disproportionately disadvantages women.
  2. Increase support for paternal leave. Encourage fathers to take their parental leave. Women will not be able to contribute to science equally if responsibility for raising children is not shared between men and women.
  3. Develop a family supportive environment within the university. Initiatives should include the development of hiring policies that explicitly instruct faculty search committees not to penalize individuals for maternity leaves or periods of part time work. The focus should be on the quality of the research, and not on the sheer number of publications.
  4. Develop a family supportive environment within departments. The departmental culture can have a large influence on the perception of the family friendliness of a research career (Fox 2011; Villablanca et al. 2011; Mason et al. 2013). For example, mothers (and father caregivers) should be encouraged to share tips on how to successfully combine parenthood and research (either informally or in a department-wide discussion, Lahav 2010). Such a discussion could alleviate some of the concerns of young biologists (see Connelly and Ghodsee for other suggestions). Although individual mentors are helpful, it is also important to have a supportive departmental community. Men, too, are increasingly concerned about an appropriate work/life balance (Damaske et al. 2014). Therefore, a family-friendly environment can be an important recruitment tool when searching for the best faculty, regardless of sex.
  5. Ensure a supportive and safe environment for women at conferences and on field trips. Sexual harassment remains an issue in science (e.g. Anonymous, 2016). Societies such as the Entomological Society of America have an explicit code of conduct for members, as well as a contact person to help individuals dealing with harassment at their annual meeting (http://www.entsoc.org/entomology2015/code-conduct).
  6. Whether we are training too many biologists may be a matter of debate, but what is clear is that we have many more talented biologists than there are tenure-track faculty positions. This hypercompetitive job market disadvantages women, especially women with families (Adamo 2013; Mason et al. 2013), and this fact should be acknowledged. Departmental graduate program committees should track their doctoral student and post doctoral alumni and determine how well alumni have weathered the decline in the availability of tenure-track positions. Scientific societies and national granting agencies should also track the career trajectories of our doctoral students and post docs and develop a list of alternate careers.



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