Gender Bias In Academia: Coming Out of the Darkness Into the Light

I have always been a late bloomer. I was gender-blind until my early-20s, when I got into graduate school. As a child, I played with dolls along with my male cousins, and climbed trees with my girlfriends. I graduated as a veterinarian in a class where lots of my classmates who were men became feline and canine veterinarians, and many female classmates became large animal specialists. I was blind to it all. But then Academia happened, and instead of seeing the light, I remained in the dark.

photo credit: Mark Warner [ CC BY-SA 2.0 ],  via Wikimedia Commons

photo credit: Mark Warner [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The department in which I was enrolled for my PhD in Biochemistry was the typical modern academic setting with more women students than men, but somehow the star students were always men. There was a higher number of women getting hired as professors at an entry level but a larger number of men becoming full professors. I thought nothing of it. I was still blind.

I moved overseas to conduct a specific set of experiments at a collaborator's lab. At that time, he had a post-doctoral scientist, who was a man, working on a similar matter who was designated as my "person of reference” in the laboratory. After a couple of weeks, I knocked on my supervisor’s door and told him that my bench colleague seemed to think I was there to assist him in his research, and thus I would appreciate the supervisor making it clear that I was there to work independently. His response; “You are being paranoid. He is trying to help you.” I was 25 years old, and this was the first time I was called paranoid by a man in defense of accusing his male friend of trying to steal my work. As I said, I was a late bloomer.

The work was completed within a couple of months, and the supervisor announced his post-doctoral scientist was going to be the first author on the paper with my data. I was, indeed, his assistant. I phoned my PhD advisor, asking him to step in to defend my authorship, and he said: “Such-and-such is in need of papers. Be nice and let him be the first author of your paper.” No one had ever told me to “be nice” before. I was a very, very late bloomer.

My career went on. I crossed five countries and cultures, where I witnessed different levels and subtleties of the Boys' Club. That’s what academia is, a Boys' Club, with either more strict or less strict rules, depending on the country’s overall take on women as part of the workforce. In some places, older women take the younger ones under their wing and try to mentor them up the ladder, as men do with their male peers. As a young gender-blind professional, the first time I encountered a group of women professors at an Ivy-league university in the United States who were involved in women's issues, I exclaimed: “Who needs that?! Women and men are equal! The quality of one’s scientific arguments/data prevails above all else!” Ah, the idealism of youth. As it turns out, this group of women professors has worked to help young women professors navigate the Boys’ Club and assume leadership positions.

Once you finally bloom and recognize the gender bias, it is omnipresent! My PhD candidate friend who was offered better grades in exchange for “dates”, the competent woman who was denied a professorship for being “a bit too outspoken”, the men who get away with shady (or plain illegal) doings while women get burned in public for much less, the men who socialize for long hours in the department and get co-authorships out of it whilst the women are double-shifting between their labs and families and receiving written warnings of “not publishing enough".

Currently I work at a large college-style institute involved in research and education. There are 81 women and 80 men professors, yet this gender equality is not reflected in our directorships and administrative committees. In the last two decades, only one woman reached directorship of the institute, and even then it was in the administrative committees involved in stereotypically feminine roles, such as education and peoples' support (human rights, support to victims of harassment). The work in these committees is being carried out predominantly by women professors with representation by women ranging from 64 to 100%. In contrast, on those committees involved in stereotypically masculine roles such as budget oversight and governance, the work is carried out predominantly by men with representation by women ranging from 0 to 28%. The committees that oversee research funding and equipment facilities have 43% and 37% female representation, respectively. Our ombudsman committee did not have its first woman professor until 2018! Although currently 4 out of 7 departments are headed by women, most of the women professors in my institute are being left out of the decision-making conversations that involve funding and governance. We are still functioning in a system where women school and care for the children, while men take care of the money and decide where to spend it.

Now that I’ve become enlightened to the glaring gender bias in academia, I know how important it is to speak up. I know that I have earned my place on research papers and data presentations and that my name should appear as the author, not a male colleague. I want to be part of a group that lifts up professors who are women and helps them on their path to leadership, and I want the men of academia to become allies in this fight and join me.

Julieta Eco, DVM, PhD in Biochemistry has worked as a research scientist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), at an Ivy League Schools of Medicine (USA), at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (USA), at the Marine Biology Laboratory (USA), and other research universities in Sweden, Brazil, Scotland, and Germany.