See all NewsEngineering News

Study Finds Female Faculty Are Underrepresented in Genomics

Playing field for female faculty in STEM disciplines not always as level as it appears

Succeeding in the male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines can be very challenging for female faculty. Now, a Northwestern University study of the collaboration patterns of STEM faculty has found that the playing fields in some disciplines are not as level as they first appear.

“Our findings in molecular biology, particularly genomics, are what surprised us the most,” said Luís Amaral, a professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering. “There is a lot of research money in this high-profile area, and women are not represented proportionally. This raises all sorts of questions as to what kind of cultural environment has been created in the field.”

Knowing that collaboration is critical to the scientific enterprise, Amaral and Teresa K. Woodruff, a Northwestern Medicine reproductive biologist, focused on this factor in their study of the underrepresented group of female faculty in STEM. The data analysis of the complete publication records of nearly 4,000 faculty members in six STEM disciplines at top research universities across the country produced a number of findings.

Luís AmaralThe researchers found that, broadly speaking, female faculty (for the six different disciplines in the study) have as many collaborators, or co-authors, as male faculty and that female faculty tend to return to the same collaborators a little less than males. Previous research by Amaral had shown that novel collaborations have a greater likelihood of producing work of higher impact.

However, those aggregate patterns have to be interpreted with care, Amaral cautioned, because the situation can change within subdisciplines. By digging deeper, the researchers found that females are underrepresented in large teams in genomics (a subdiscipline of molecular biology). This could be an indication of a negative cultural milieu in this particular subfield, the researchers said.

“We want to understand ways in which males and females live different experiences in STEM disciplines, so that a level playing field can be created where needed,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff is the Thomas J. Watkins Memorial Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The findings will be published Nov. 4 by the journal PLOS Biology. The STEM disciplines included in the study are chemical engineering, chemistry, ecology, materials science, molecular biology and psychology.

“Much more progress needs to be made for underrepresented groups to feel welcomed in STEM disciplines,” Amaral said. “In fact, the degree of progress is not even uniform within a single discipline, so one needs to make sure females are not being excluded from specific subdisciplines.”

Amaral and Woodruff also want to expand their ongoing analysis to include other underrepresented groups, such as African-American faculty.

The PLOS Biology study builds on earlier research by Amaral and Woodruff. Previously, they looked at the publication rates and impact of publications for the same faculty cohort. That study showed that bias against women is ingrained in the workforce, despite a societal desire to believe workplace equality exists.

The Department of Defense’s Army Research Office (Grant No. W911NF-14-1-0259), the John Templeton Foundation Award (No. FP053369-A//39147) and the National Science Foundation (Award No. SMA-1446078) supported the research.

The title of the PLOS Biology paper is “Differences in Collaboration Patterns Across Discipline, Career Stage, and Gender.”

In addition to Amaral and Woodruff, other authors of the paper are Xiao Han T. Zeng (first author), Jordi Duch, Marta Sales-Pardo, João A. G. Moreira and Haroldo V. Ribeiro, all from Northwestern, and Filippo Radicchi, from Indiana University.