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In Israel, Immobility Hampers Women's Research Careers

Prof. Ada E. Yonath

Ada E. Yonath

CREDIT: Photography by Hareesh N. Nampoothiri (Haree), NEWNMEDIA™, Wikimedia Commons

Women scientists with Ph.D.s are much less likely than men to travel in pursuit of career-enhancing postdoc appointments, according to a survey from Israel's Ministry of Science, Technology and Space, as reported in The Jerusalem Post. "Postdoctoral work in advanced institutions abroad is mandatory if one aims at an academic career here," the article states, paraphrasing Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, chairman of the ministry's National Council for Research and Development. A tiny country with a world-class high-tech and scientific scene—but only a few universities and research institutes—Israel does not provide a wide range of the professional and training opportunities would-be postdocs need to broaden their experience and contacts. 

Female scientists, the study found, are much less likely than males to travel to a foreign university for a postdoc appointment, a career-enhancing step. The apparent reason for the difference, the Post suggests, is that married women to move their families less often than men do.

More than 77% of male Ph.D. researchers did postdocs in foreign countries, including 54% in the United States and 3.5% in England, the study indicates. In contrast, 48% of the women remained in Israel while doing their postdocs. The apparent reason: Women with families stay where they are. This discrepancy "hint[s] at a deep problem that can prevent women from advancing in academia here," the Post reported, paraphrasing Ben-Yisrael.

The fact that Israeli scientists must spend time abroad before successfully launching an academic career at home provides a particularly stark illustration of a problem that appears to exist in the United States as well, if less obviously: Women with husbands and children often find it far harder than comparable men to move in pursuit of career opportunities.

There is one woman among Israel's four science Nobel laureates: Ada Yonath of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, who helped pioneer research on the ribosome. Yonath did postdocs at the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then returned to her alma mater to launch her career. Yonath, by the way, has a daughter and a granddaughter; she gave birth "in the middle of my PhD and she didn’t disturb it," she told the Lindau Nobel Luareate Meetings blog.