Barriers to/Factors for Biomedical Careers for Women

Women in Biomedical Careers: Dynamics of Change Strategies for the 21st Century

ORWH Workshop Report, Women in Biomedical Careers: Dynamics of Change, Strategies for the 21st Century. 1995.

Issue 1. Recruiting Women and Girls into Biomedical Careers

Because the training and development of qualified female scientists is a continuum that begins during the formative stages of education, issues that impede the recruitment of women into the sciences must be addressed at their origins. For many girls, the aggregate effect of low expectations by parents and teachers for their performance in math and the sciences, gender biased textbooks, and gender stereotypes can ultimately result in underachievement and a loss of interest in the sciences. For young women who demonstrate an interest in and aptitude for science, perceptions of opportunities in the sciences can be critical.

Issue 2. Visibility: Lack of Female Role Models and Mentors

Role models and mentors play an important part in shaping the motivations of young women. Unfortunately, the underrepresentation of women in the upper ranks of the sciences limits the number of women who are capable of filling these roles. In particular, there are few women to serve as role models for young, female high school students who are making career decisions. This trend changes little from high school through graduate school, where female students report that they often feel isolated and claim that they do not receive the same attention as male students from male teachers. Mentoring is also a crucial part of the maturation and advancement of any young scientist. Through a mentor, a young scientist makes important contacts that can lead to opportunities for career advancement. In a 1989 survey of medical students, 94 percent of the women agreed that they needed successful, tenured female faculty members to serve as role models, although only 61 percent actually had mentors and only 11 percent had female mentors.

Issue 3. Career Paths/Rewards

As the data on salaries and advancement suggest, women are not afforded the same biomedical career opportunities as men. Throughout the biomedical disciplines, women are employed in smaller numbers than men and are disproportionately concentrated in lower or nontenured positions. According to the NSF, the ranks of U.S. scientific faculties include a total of 16,484 female doctoral scientists in the life sciences (biological, agricultural, and medical) or 24 percent of all positions within the life sciences, female doctoral scientists are consistently underrepresented in the top ranks of academic institutions.

Issue 4. Need for Reentry Into a Biomedical Career

At present, women who leave their scientific careers to raise families often face significant barriers when reentering the field. Those who have been out of the system for several years often find that their fields have advanced considerably and that research technology has changed. To reenter, these women often need opportunities to become current without having to make an investment in formal instruction at a university. These women also need mentors and an institutional environment that does not view them as "quitters" or as not being serious about a career.

Issue 5. Family Responsibilities/ Dual Roles

During an academic career, meeting the rigorous requirements for tenure tends to coincide with prime childbearing years. This factor can impede women's progress and often forces them to choose between their careers and their families. The demands placed upon women for the support and care of dependent children are often ignored by biomedical sciences institutions. In some cases, institutions even pose barriers, separate from issues surrounding tenure eligibility, to women who wish to fulfill both their career and family responsibilities. For example, only 18 percent of medical schools provide child care and only 14 percent of residency programs offer part-time or shared residency positions. The intense research demands of many biomedical degree programs allow little time for the support and care of children. These demands, when combined with the challenges of obtaining competitive research funds, result in forcing many women, especially those with small children, to leave their careers.

Issue 6. Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment

Discriminatory practices toward women can be classified as any form of differential treatment based on gender that is detrimental to career development, including practices that exclude women from opportunities, result in lower salaries, or lead to unfair assessments of their work. Sexual harassment includes sexual advances or sexually oriented remarks. Both of these factors can have a negative impact on women, society, and the integrity of biomedical science.

Issue 7. Research Initiatives on Women's Health

The enlistment and promotion of women in biomedical research is directly linked to the conduct of research on women's health issues. From a practical standpoint, the full integration of women into the culture and leadership of our biomedical institutions is the best means of ensuring that research at these institutions is attentive, adequately focused, and fully sensitive to the health needs of women.

Issue 8. Gender Sensitivity

The workplace environment must be adapted so that women in biomedical careers are respected and acknowledged for their work and contributions, science as a career is both attractive to and feasible for women, and women and men function effectively in this environment without sacrificing their personal responsibilities. Integral to establishing this environment is leadership within the scientific community that is responsive to women's issues and accountable for the development and implementation of effective strategies to address these issues.

Issue 9. Racial Bias/Special Needs of Minority Women

The recruitment and retention of minority women present a double set of issues: the issues of sexism encountered by women in a male dominated system and the issues generated by racial and ethnic prejudices. In gender-related issues, minority women experience the same barriers as white women but often to a far greater degree. Minority women have been kept out of science careers by barriers to academic achievement, including access, equity, excellence in educational curriculum, academic services, financial assistance, and a scarcity of mentors. Table 1 (see page 17) presents the most recent data (1993) for various ethnic groups. Where sexism is absent, minority women must still often contend with issues of prejudice from both genders and even from other racial or ethnic minority groups. Recognition of the special complexity of issues for minority women is the first step toward overcoming the barriers that exist for them in biomedical careers. Application of that knowledge conceptually and pragmatically is the second step. For example, in training female scientists to mentor other female scientists, special attention must be paid to training impartial mentors for minority women. Fostering special opportunities and visibility for minority women is the third important step in overcoming the double barriers. For example, faculty exchanges in the form of visiting lectureships and membership on institutional advisory boards and committees are ways to increase the visibility and influence of minority women.


To keep informed about the Working Group and NIH-wide efforts, please sign up for our LISTSERV.

Up to top
This page last updated: May 2, 2007