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Women in Neuroscience – Can We Have it All?

Summary: Stacey A. Bedwell explores why females are under represented in the field of neuroscience.

Source: Nottingham Trent University.

Women have historically been under represented across the sciences (House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, 2014). Neuroscience is no exception. Only one third of senior academic staff in UK institutions are female (Higher Education Statistics Agency, 2014). The situation has improved over recent years; in 2014, 22% of professors in UK institutions were female, compared to 15% ten years earlier (The Times higher education, 2015). However, there remains a clear gender gap in academic neuroscience.

Interestingly, when compared to closely related brain sciences e.g. psychology, women are far more poorly represented in neurobiological areas. It is unclear why women are so much more under-represented in neuroscience and whether female neuroscientists are being pushed out due to gender inequalities and forced life decisions. Or, are female scientists simply not that interested in neurobiology?

As a female neuroscientist, I have held research positions in both biology and psychology departments. I have seen first-hand the stark contrasts in the representation of women in these fields, even at the same university. Psychology and biology are very closely related fields, with neuroscience spanning both areas. It can therefore be somewhat of a surprise to learn that the numbers of female scientists in neurobiological and psychological fields differ so greatly.

According to online staff listings (accessed may 2016), at Nottingham Trent University 29% of biosciences academic and research staff are female, compared to 57% in psychology. This trend is consistent across UK universities. At University College London 59% of psychology research staff are female compared to only 49% of neuroscience researchers. At the University of Cambridge, 29% of the 293 neuroscience principal investigators are female, whereas in psychology 44% of academic staff are female. The gender gap becomes more apparent if we look at senior academic staff; only professors and readers. For example, at Nottingham Trent University only 27% of psychology professors and readers are female. This is similar in biosciences, where 25% of professors and readers are female. These figures indicate that although the representation of women is generally greater in psychology than biological brain sciences, the representation of female scientists remains relatively consistently low at senior levels.

While the gender gap is not exclusive to neuroscience, it seems to be more defined than in other scientific disciplines, especially at researcher and lecturer levels. If we consider biology in general, the gap between the representation of men and women is not as large as it is in neuroscience specifically. When considered alongside the fact that there is generally a good representation of female academics in other areas of brain science like psychology, it is unclear why women are so poorly represented in neuroscience.

It is clear that there are far fewer female brain scientists working in biosciences, and that the gender difference becomes even more apparent at higher levels, but what is not clear is why this is the case. Could the answer be that women interested in studying the brain tend to be more interested the in social, clinical and health aspects? Perhaps women are steered in this direction? Or is there a difference between biology and psychology departments at universities, do women prefer what psychology departments can offer them?

It is common place to see media claims of gender gaps in science, however the causes and evolution of this gap are rarely fully addressed. Despite clear differences in the representation of female scientists, there is a common homology, in that across all sciences, not just psychology and biology, a large majority of professors are male. It is often assumed that female scientists are prevented from reaching professor status by gender bias and a ‘glass ceiling’. This may not necessarily be the case. The low percentage of female professors may reflect a difference in the aspirations and life goals of female scientists in general, rather than an unfair gender gap in neuroscience. The under representation of women in any area of science is often seen as unacceptable and an area that must be addressed. However, the possibility is very real that female neuroscientists simply do not want to progress to professorship. So, before addressing how to rectify a problem, it is necessary to identify whether there really is a problem.

Do women want to be at the top?

According to Dubreuil (2013), female academics tend to leave laboratories at much higher rates than their male counterparts. This is apparent across the world. Such high female drop-out rates results in an imbalance at the top. The Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs reported in 2003 that half of neuroscience graduate students were female, but only 25% of tenure-track faculty was female. Dubreuil (2013) claimed that women leaving scientific careers early on is the cause of a high representation of men in professor roles, not necessary anything to do with women being prevented from reaching that level. It is unclear from this observation why women are leaving academia before reaching professorship at such an alarming rate. Are women leaving because they are not interested in progressing any further or are they feeling pushed out?

There is a vast amount of literature evidencing a gender gap in neuroscience as well as other sciences, however it is often unclear as to whether the underrepresented women, or the female researchers supposedly left behind, actually want to become professors or readers. Research shows that men are generally more competitive than women (Niederle & Vesterlund, 2007). Therefore, possibly more likely to want to be at the top and willing to compete to get there.

Valian’s theory of accumulation advantage (1998) states that the gender gap in senior positions is a result of gender based schemas (Steinpreis et al, 1999). Valian claimed that gender schemas result in the overrating of men and the underrating of women, leading to differences in behaviour, performance, attitude and evaluations. Differential judging of female and male scientists could be extremely influential in career progression, influencing grants, publications and performance evaluations. This is especially relevant if female neuroscientists are applying these schemas to themselves and not pushing for progression due to feelings of inferiority.

We have established that some female neuroscientists may not want to or be psychologically suited to becoming highly competitive professors. In this case the issue of a gender gap at the top is not one of concern. However, the fact that women are more poorly represented in neuroscience than other brain sciences is not fully explained by gender differences in competitiveness. It seems there is more to be uncovered in explaining the extreme gender gap in neuroscience.

Making a choice

A common assumption is that female scientists are forced to make a choice between the progression of their career and beginning a family. The most vital period of progression within an academic career tends to be after completion of a Ph.D. and before obtaining a permanent academic post e.g. lectureship. During this time scientists within academic institutions often change between many short-term post-doctoral research contracts, lasting from three months to five years. The short-term contract nature of post-doc research often requires relocation across country, sometimes internationally. To add to the pressure and stress caused by short term contracts, female post-docs at this stage are often around the age of 30 to 35. At this age, many couples want to start families, perhaps buy a home and generally gain some more stability in their home life. It is at this point that many women may face dilemmas. Research has indicated that female scientists who had children felt that the decision had affected their career progression to a greater extent than their male counterparts (Brody, 2004). Evidence shows that having children significantly decreases the average number of hours worked by women, while increasing the average number of hours worked by men (Leslie, 2007). Such work pattern differences may have a direct impact on the ability to progress in an academic career.

Progressing in an academic career often does not afford the luxury of remaining in the same institution or geographical location. This results in frequent relocation. With many post-doctoral positions having very short contracts, it can be difficult for researchers to settle in one place until they gain a lectureship. This inevitably can lead to problems with getting on the property ladder, or even wanting to commit to buying property when another relocation is likely in the near future. Such lack of stability in home life can put additional pressures on families or couples, especially where the partner also has a career from which they do not wish to relocate.

For female scientists for whom stability is of great importance, they may feel they have to sacrifice their career progression for their home life. Of course, this dilemma is not unique to female postdoctoral scientists, male academics also face the same temporary contracts.

Many working women, not just those in science or academia, often face a tough decision as to when to start a family, or how long to put off having children. It is common for female academics to put off having children until their mid to late 30’s, often due to the pressures of completing a Ph.D. and moving between multiple post-doc positions throughout their 20’s. It is not difficult to understand why women working in unstable and high pressured careers put starting a family on hold, until they have secured a more permanent position and reliable source of income, as well as a more permanent home.

Image shows a woman performing an experiment in a lab setting.

A common assumption is that female scientists are forced to make a choice between the progression of their career and beginning a family. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to luchschen.

The unstable nature of post-doc research can easily result in female scientists making the decision to leave academia for a more stable position in order to meet the desire to settle down. This is a particular problem that male academics do not face to such an extent, men wishing to wait until they have a stable work life before starting a family are unlikely to run out of time in terms of their fertility. Women on the other hand, are facing a race against their biological clocks. This simple biological fact may be a key factor in determining why female scientists face a choice between family and career, more so than their male counterparts.

We have established that female scientists seem to be better represented in psychology than more biological brain sciences. This raises the question – are women better represented in psychology than neurobiology because gaining a lectureship post Ph.D. is easier and can be achieved sooner in psychology? From my own experience I have learnt that it is far more common within psychology departments to go straight from Ph.D. to permanent lecturer than in biological fields, where three or four short-term post-doc contracts are more common. Gaining a permanent position before the age of 30 becomes much more achievable for women if they are in psychology. This means less women in psychology are likely to feel forced to make a decision between career progression and home life. This simple observation of progression trends in different academic departments could be the key to explaining why the gender gap differs so greatly between similar fields.

Yes, we can have it all ….. in very specific circumstances

From examining the career progression of female neuroscientists in different departments and institutions it appears that actually, yes, we can have it all, if we fall into a very specific category. It is possible for women to achieve their greatest career aspirations and become a professor in neuroscience. It is much easier for women to gain a permanent academic position before the age of 30-35- in psychology departments. Due to the nature of neuroscience research in psychology, this makes early permanent positions somewhat limited to specific areas of interest and excludes those pursuing anatomy, physiology or any basic neuroscience related discipline. This is good news for the female cognitive neuroscientists or those working in psychology departments. For neurobiologists, the prospect of pursuing a career in academia, where a permanent job before the age of 30-35 is not so common, along-side a settled family life and having children is a lot more difficult.

To conclude, yes, we can have it all, if we choose the right field, in the right department and manage to get ourselves a permanent academic post soon after our Ph.D. It is possible to have it all, how likely it is to get it all is another question.

About this neuroscience opinion article

Note: NeuroscienceNews.com would like to thank Stacey A. Bedwell for submitting this neuroscience opinion article directly to us for inclusion on our website.

Source: Stacey A. BedwellNottingham Trent University
Image Source: This NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to luchschen.
References Brody, E.M. (2004). Women in the middle: Their parent care years. New York: Springer.

Dubreuil Vall, L. (2013). Where Are All the Women in Neuroscience? Women 2.0. Accessed May 2016 at http://women2.com/2013/08/29/where-are-all-the-women-in neuroscience/#V8vvlXL4CK2W02j9.99

Higher Education Statistics Agency (2014). Staff in Higher Education 2013-14.

House of Commons Science & Technology Committee (2014). Women in scientific careers. Sixth Report of Session 2013–14.

Leslie, D.W. (2007). The reshaping of America’s academic workforce. Research Dialogue. (87). New York.

Niederle, M. and Vesterlund, L. (2007). Do women shy away from competition? do men compete too much? The Quarterly Journal of Economics. 1067-1101.

Steinpreis, R.E., Anders, K.A. and Ritzke, D. (1999). The impact of gender on the review of the curricula vitae of job applicants and tenure candidates. Sex Roles 41(7/8) 509-528.

The Times higher education (2015). Proportion of female professors up, but still below a quarter. Accessed May 2016 at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/proportion-of-female-professors-up-but-still-below-a-quarter/2018824.article

Valian, V. (1998). Why so slow? Advancement of women. Cambridge. MA: MIT Press.

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Nottingham Trent University. “Women in Neuroscience – Can We Have it All?.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 23 June 2016.
Nottingham Trent University. (2016, June 23). Women in Neuroscience – Can We Have it All?. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved June 23, 2016 from http://neurosciencenews.com/women-in-neuroscience-4548/
Nottingham Trent University. “Women in Neuroscience – Can We Have it All?.” http://neurosciencenews.com/women-in-neuroscience-4548/ (accessed June 23, 2016).
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