Gender Bias in the Sciences: A Neuroethical Priority

By Lindsey Grubbs

Lindsey Grubbs is a doctoral candidate in English at Emory University, where she is also pursuing a certificate in bioethics. Her work has been published in Literature & Medicine and the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience, and she has a chapter co-authored with Karen Rommelfanger forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Neuroethics.   

In a March 29, 2017 lecture at Emory University, Dr. Bita Moghaddam, Chair of the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University, began her talk, “Women’s Reality in Academic Science,” by asking the room of around fifty undergraduate and graduate students, “Who’s not here today?”

The answer? Men. (Mostly. To be fair, there were two.) Women in the audience offered a few hypotheses: maybe men felt like they would be judged for coming to a “women’s” event; maybe they wanted the women in their community to enjoy a female-majority space; maybe they don’t think that gender impacts their education and career.

Moghaddam seemed inclined to favor this third view: anecdotally, she has noticed a marked lack of interest from younger men when it comes to discussing gender bias in the sciences. More interested, she suggested, are older men who run laboratories or departments and watch wave after wave of talented women leave the profession, and those who have seen their partners or children impacted by sexism in science.

Dr. Moghaddam was invited to speak in Atlanta for her work against the systemic bias facing women in the sciences. She co-authored a short piece in Neuropsychopharmacology titled “Women at the Podium: ACNP Strives to Reach Speaker Gender Equality at the Annual Meeting.” The essay (and a corresponding podcast) describes measures taken while Moghaddam was chairing the program committee for the competitive, invitation-only American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP) annual meeting.

The problem? Although well-represented in ACNP membership, women were underrepresented for the conference’s prestigious speaking opportunities. In 2010, for example, only 7% of plenaries were delivered by women (the numbers in 2011 and 2012 were a bit better, at 33% and 15% respectively). As a result, women were not getting the same valuable exposure and opportunities for professional development as male scientists. Moreover, the quality of the science may have been suffering from a lack of diverse perspectives, and younger scientists could have been turned off by panels full of old white men (somewhere around 50% of neuroscience graduate scientists are women).

Portrait of M. and Mme Lavoisier.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
And neuroethicists should take note. Whose voices are being amplified and whose dampened in neuroscience are fundamental ethical questions. Many of history’s most egregious ethical violations were supported in part by scientific bias—American slavery was justified by racial medicine developed by white men (see, for instance, the work of pro-slavery Samuel Cartwright) and women’s exclusion from education and the public sphere in the nineteenth century was advocated for by early male neurologists (like S. Weir Mitchell’s Doctor and Patient). In interrogating the ethical issues facing the science of the mind today, neuroethics must not neglect the practices that shape the field and dictate its contours through amplifying some voices while dampening others.

In short, more inclusive science is better science, as shown by the work of feminist science scholar Deboleena Roy. With a doctorate in reproductive neuroendocrinology and molecular biology, Roy argues that her feminist training allowed her to innovate in her neuroendocrinological research, leading to important new insights about the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis. In her essay “Asking Different Questions: Feminist Practices for the Natural Sciences,” she examines the ways that the “methodology of the oppressed” allows scientists to ask new questions.

In a 2014 article for Neuroethics, Roy points to a need both for neuroethicists studying sex and gender difference to engage with histories of medicine and feminist theory and for feminist theories to become comfortable enough with tools like neuroimaging that they can contribute to, rather than simply critique, work in neuroscience. Roy argues that neuroethics may be a productive theoretical space where both feminist scholars and neuroscientists can explore these issues together, suggesting (among other possible topics) the assumption that structural differences in the brain equate to functional differences in behavior.

The Gendered Innovation website, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Stanford, and European Commission, provides resources and case studies to bring gender and sex analysis into research, stating plainly that integrating such methods “produces excellence in science, medicine, and engineering research, policy, and practice.” The group argues that “Doing research wrong costs lives and money,” pointing to issues as diverse as pharmaceuticals pulled because they were life-threatening to women and injuries in vehicle accidents because crash dummies are modeled after the average size of males. Bringing gender analysis to research, they claim, is good for research, society, and business. This is certainly true in neuroscience, where bias is built into the very infrastructure of research, as in the case of neuroimaging scanners engineered for the larger average male head, and so yielding less precise results for scans of the female brain. And the stakes of such failures are high. Because neuroscientific research so often interrogates fundamental questions about personhood, morality, consciousness, and intelligence, research bias has the potential to skew our perception of identify in particularly damaging ways.

Gendered Innovation takes for granted that a more inclusive science is a better science, with interlocking initiatives to increase the number of women in science, to promote equality within science organizations, and to improve research by including sex and gender analysis. Certainly, not all female neuroscientists pursue feminist work, and not all feminist work is pursued by women, but creating an inclusive environment that foregrounds anti-bias as a goal must be an important part of an ethical neuroscience. This work needs to happen at many levels—feminist theory excels at this kind of critique, and feminist work in the lab is changing the course of neuroscience, but Dr. Moghaddam’s work suggests that we must not neglect administrative, pragmatic solutions.

Moghaddam’s team found a surprisingly simple and effective solution to the problem of unequal representation at the annual ACNP conference. More women were included on the program committee, and the call for proposals was edited to include the following phrase: “While scientific quality is paramount, the committee will strongly consider the composition of the panels that include women, under-represented minorities and early career scientists and clinicians.” Following this addition, more than 90% of panel proposals included at least one woman—a dramatic improvement, even though women still only made up about 35% of speakers. Essentially, when greater equality made men’s panels more competitive, they were more proactive about assuring gender-diverse panels. Notably, attendees’ assessment of the scientific quality of the annual meeting improved at the same time that women’s representation did.

Image courtesy of Flickr.
Dr. Moghaddam, by all measures an incredibly successful scientist, shared many experiences of gender discrimination, from expectations that she do departmental “chores,” to colleagues’ horror that she would become pregnant early on the tenure-track, to being mistaken for an administrative assistant or janitor. And such experiences are more than anecdotal. This powerful article in the Harvard Business Review begins with a stark statistic from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which suggests that while approximately half of doctoral degrees in the sciences are awarded to women, they hold only 21% of full professorships—even though women often out perform their male colleagues early in their careers. The authors’ analysis suggests that, while women obtain 10-15% more prestigious first-author papers than men (the position for the junior scientist who led the research and writing efforts), women are significantly under-represented in last-author papers (the spot reserved for the senior scientist whose grant money and ideology likely guided the paper).

While some suggest that women simply aren’t entering the STEM pipeline, or leak out of it due to a desire for better work-life balance, research suggests that systemic gender bias may be a more fundamental problem, with women having to continually prove themselves in the face of doubt, being expected to balance the tightrope of “appropriate” masculinity and femininity, facing diminished opportunities and expectations after having children, and facing increased discrimination and competition from other women in their field. Many of these forms of bias, the authors note, have been noted at higher levels by women of color, and black and Latina women also report feeling that social isolation in the department was essential for maintaining an air of competence.

These challenges are not unique to neuroscience, and across the university, women are underrepresented in full-time, tenure-track positions and overrepresented in part-time and contingent positions. Of note to many neuroethicists, philosophy also has a particularly bad rap for equal representation of women in full-time, tenure-track positions. Neuroethicists, then, should be vigilant. If we (over-simply, of course) imagine neuroethics as a kind of petri-dish of philosophy and neuroscience, then we certainly have some deep-seated demons to confront, despite the strength of our female founders and contributors. (Take an internet stroll to NeuroEthicsWomen Leaders to see for yourself.)

Many women organize around these kinds of issues, advocating for a more equitable environment. The website anneslist compiles lists of female neuroscientists to facilitate speaking and networking opportunities. And at Emory, Moghaddam’s talk was sponsored by Emory Women in Neuroscience, an organization founded by graduate students at the university in 2010 to create an environment in a department where 75% of graduate students were women, while only 25% of the faculty were. (According a rough count of the faculty page this statistic has improved in the past seven years, but only slightly.) Spearheaded by president Amielle Moreno, the organization holds several events per year, from social events like BBQs and a Girl Scout Cookie and Wine Night, to screenings of films about women in science (this year, they sponsored a viewing and discussion of Hidden Figures), to bootcamps to provide women with a friendly environment to learn to code. The group’s mission clearly resonates, and this was one of the better-attended talks I’ve seen in my years at Emory, even with (very) few men present.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
And on this last point, Dr. Moghaddam did not lay the blame for men’s lack of interest in the talk solely at their own door. The women in the room, she suggested, could have been more proactive about trying to bring their male friends and colleagues to the table. Women in academia (and beyond, of course) will likely take the lead in advocating for change. But this is often a perilous position. As one audience member pointed out, women may worry that they’ll be branded as “difficult” if they call out peers or superiors for sexism. And they may be right. What this suggests, then, is that men need to take on more responsibility for doing this labor. If women’s positions are already more vulnerable, those with more security should seriously consider how they can proactively improve equality. Perhaps incentives like those employed by ACNP could be applied in more contexts, driving home to men that gender equality is in their best interest.

But gender equality must only be one goal. Sexism can be practiced by women as well as men, and so a fifty-fifty faculty split wouldn’t automatically fix attitudinal problems. There is a difference, too, between science done by women and feminist science (for more on this, see here, here, or here). Further, we must consider who is being left out if we talk in these terms. My own discussion above, for instance, relies uncomfortably on the categories “men” and “women,” leaving out those whose gender identities may not fit neatly into those categories. Moreover, by talking about “women” as a group with a unified experience, we can overlook the nuances of racialized sex discrimination. Although my own discussion has focused on gender rather than race, racial bias within science is also rampant (see posts here and here), impoverishing the quality of research. On these fronts, and more, fields like neuroscience and neuroethics should have open discussion--and experimentation with pragmatic changes like the one that led to ACNP’s improved representation of women at the podium. Neuroethicists have a duty to stay informed about bias in the academy and to work both pragmatically and imaginatively to develop and support a more inclusive field—and women shouldn’t have to do it alone.

Want to cite this post?

Grubbs, L. (2017). Gender Bias in the Sciences: A Neuroethical Priority. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

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