NIH sued for promotion bias against women in the Intramural Research Program

Aug 29 2016 Published by under Intramural Research Programs, NIH, NIH Careerism

via Lenny Bernstein at the Washington Post:

What Bielekova doesn’t have, at age 47, is tenure, the coveted guarantee of recognition, job security and freedom to pursue controversial ideas that is critical to long-term success in an academic career. She was not put forward as a candidate for the second time last year, despite a positive recommendation from a panel of outside experts who reviewed her qualifications.

To me the kicker is this part. NIH intramural is weird the way they have big deal lab heads and a lot of career scientists under them that would be standard tenure rank folks elsewhere. So when the big deal head dies or retires it is always a little weird. Do they hand the lab to one of the folks already there? And boot the rest? Or do they spawn off a couple of new jobs? or find homes for people in other big-deal groups?

Bielekova alleges retaliation and discrimination based on gender after what she describes as a “power struggle” following the retirement of her mentor, who was chief of the neuro-immunology branch. She said male scientists were provided numerous advantages in the aftermath and that she has been harmed by groundless accusations from male colleagues of unprofessional conduct. A male colleague from her branch, she said, was nominated for tenure at the same time that she was held back.


Amazingly Story Landis, prior NINDS Director, gave the full reveal quote:

While tenure awards are supposed to be based largely on merit, it is widely acknowledged that personality conflicts, budget constraints, internal politics and other factors affect them.

“Tenure decisions are complicated, and not just about what you’ve published,” Landis said.

In this, the NIH IRPs are no different than anywhere else, eh? It isn't about objective merits but about the subjective views of your colleagues, when it comes right down to it.

And lets in a whole lot o' bias.

Bielekova, ..has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against her institute’s director and two others,

Twill be interesting to watch this play out.

13 responses so far

  • dsks says:

    There is clearly a problem here, DM, and I'm sure the NIH is at this very moment putting together a task force to investigate these allegations of bias thoroughly and seriously, compile data, arrange numerous round table discussions and panels, and put together a full and comprehensive proposal going forward that will ultimately conclude that there really is a problem, and by gosh they'd like to do something about it but, gee whiz, does anybody out there have any ideas coz their hands are tied, and you know what, maybe we should wait for more data to come in before making any major decisions anyway?

    This process will of course be expedited due to the seriousness of the allegations, and should be completed in at least four to five years.

  • The Other Dave says:

    Old boys clubs within old boys clubs.

  • acd says:

    "[Koroshetz] said he has not seen gender bias but knows that women consider NIH a more difficult place to work than men do."


  • mostly a lurker says:

    Nothing new under the sun here. Bros before you know what. They will circle the wagons and so how can she win.

    I have never seen a man discriminated against for being a total douche, but if a woman gets a little too uppity, well we can't have that.

    It is very hard to prove this type of discrimination, as it too pervasive a part of our culture.

    Good luck to Belekova. I highly doubt that she will win the EEO complaint, because I have seen more egregious things not get traction, though I really don't know anything about the merits of the case.

  • DJMH says:

    It's very hard to know from the outside, but my understanding is that NINDS in particular is trying to move away from the structure where the giant lab heads get to hire their own postdocs into intramural jobs, and instead move to a more typical competitive application process for intramural lab heads. The result of course is that when one of the big dudes retires, their people are not guaranteed positions, contra how it used to be...hence the complaints.

    But it's not obvious that this particular person merits tenure in comparison to an outside competitor (or for that matter an internal one). Totally possible her male colleagues have been sandbagging her; also possible that the IC only wanted to tenure one of the say 5 offspring, and she wasn't it.

    I do not think that the old system, where one lab head had ridiculous power to promote their own, was superior; in fact I think it's even more susceptible to old-boys-clubs results. A la Europe.

  • zb says:

    The Wa Post article says that in NINDS, 3 women and 34 men hold tenured positions.

    "Koroshetz said he cannot discuss individual cases but makes his tenure decisions based on the institute’s overall programmatic needs, not gender. He said he has not seen gender bias but knows that women consider NIH a more difficult place to work than men do."

    Since women are human beings, too, I think a reasonable premise to start with, is that "if women consider a place more difficult to work" that the place should think about what's wrong with it, rather than presuming that there is no gender bias because "he has not seen it."

    I'm trying to remember back to my NIH days when I was pretty clueless, but if I remember correctly, NINDS has been a disfunctional unit for a long time.

  • Rheophile says:

    "[Koroshetz] said he has not seen gender bias but knows that women consider NIH a more difficult place to work than men do."

    Seems a not great response.

  • EPJ says:

    The eight ball strategy at play. You people are missing some weird events, but I don't know if they belong to the past or the future.

    Wake up, become aware, and grow up.

  • adam says:

    combining biomedical academic research system and bureaucracy and cronyism from the federal government and what do you get?

    The National Institutes of Health.

    My n=1 experience is that most institutes and centers are pretty dysfunctional. Mine certainly is. Lots of people floating around guaranteed jobs for life because they worked for so-and-so who died ten years ago. Sometimes just astounding amounts of nepotism. Plenty of folks getting jobs they shouldn't and then keeping them for years and years after they should have been fired to make room for someone competent. And this is at the lab chief and PI level, not staff and techs...

    Hard to say with Bielekova if this is pure sexism or just personality conflicts. I've certainly seen both men and women wrongly denied tenure and promotion due to this stuff. Doesn't make it right but also not sure if there's a legal basis or whatever for the EEO claim.

  • drugmonkey says:

    NIDA lists 5 women out of 27 investigators (18.5%) and NIAAA lists 2 out of 12 (17%).

    Of course one of the NIAAA women heads is NIDA Director Nora Volkow so really 1/11 or 9%. Subtracting NIAAA Director Koob from NIDA's denominator brings them to 5/26 or 19% women.

    ...don't even get me started on their non-Asian POC percentages.

  • radscientist says:

    'Sometimes NIH loses top women to another institution. “The women we offered jobs to weren’t dropping out of science,” said Story Landis, former director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, where Bielekova works. “They were taking jobs elsewhere. We lost people to Stanford, Harvard, Northwestern.”' didn't lose any men to those places? Could it be, you were expecting women you gave tenure to to be far, far more qualified than their male peers, who got tenure more easily? That is exactly how gender discrimination works. Also seems like an unfriendly culture could be a good reason why those female superstars weren't motivated to stay at the NIH instead of leaving.

  • Zuska says:

    What radscientist said. A thousand times over.

  • jmz4 says:

    It could also be that high-powered senior female scientists are still such a rarity that they have relatively more options than the men due to competition for them.
    Or yeah their expectations of getting tenure were so dismal they had nothing to lose by transferring.

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