Only integrated, data-driven approaches and enforced accountability can address the many challenges that female academics face. That was one of the take-home messages of a Wednesday phone briefing from the grassroots Research Partnership on Women in Biomedical Careers, which grew out of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers.
Identifying ways to address inequalities like those presented at the briefing, including evidence of a persistent gender-based wage gap and bias in NIH R01 grant proposal evaluation, is crucial for supporting female academics’ career aspirations. But, emphasized speaker and NIH Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity Hannah Valantine, targeting individual disparities is not enough to drive the cultural changes needed to make academia truly inclusive. “That can only be done by an integrated approach,” she said.
One strategy, Valantine suggested, is to assemble interdisciplinary teams, including representatives from the social sciences and business, at “hubs of innovation for workforce diversity.” These groups could design interventions to be quickly executed and continuously evaluated and revised, “in the iterative way we see in the business world,” she said. Evaluation is particularly important because some interventions don’t work as expected, as Molly Carnes, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, noted. For example, she explained, there is evidence that simply acknowledging that bias is ubiquitous doesn’t make people less likely to make biased decisions; in fact, it actually reinforces the behavior. On the other hand, emphasizing that everyone is working hard to overcome their bias can lead to more equitable outcomes, she said.
In addition, Valantine argued that the “vision for the future” should include an expectation of “accountability and leadership” from both university administrators and funding agencies. The leaders at these institutions must drive the cultural changes that are needed to support and promote women in the academic biomedical workforce, she said.