Archive for the 'Gender' category

Senator Murray and Representative DeLauro Want to Know What NIH Is Doing About Sexual Harassment

Readers of this blog will not need too much reminder that sexual harassment and sex-based workplace discrimination are very much a problem in academic science. We have seen numerous cases of this sort of academic misconduct reach the national and sometimes international press in the past several years. Indeed, recent discussions on this blog have mentioned the cases of Thomas Jessell and Inder Verma as well as three cases at Dartmouth College.

In these cases, and ones of scientific fraud, I and others have expressed frustration that the NIH does not appear to use what we see as its considerable power of the purse and bully pulpit to discourage future misconduct. My view is that since NIH award is a privilege and not a right, the NIH could do a lot to help their recipient institutions see that taking cases of misconduct more seriously is in their (the recipient institution's) best interest. They could pull the grants associated with any PI who has been convicted of misconduct, instead of allowing the University to appoint a replacement PI. They could refuse to make any new awards or, less dramatically, make any exception pickups if they aren't happy with the way the University has been dealing with misconduct. They could focus on training grants or F-mech fellowships if they see a particular problem in the treatment of trainees. Etc. Lots of room to work since the NIH decides all the time to fund this grant and not that grant for reasons other than the strict order of review.

Well, two Democratic members of Congress have sent a letter (PDF) to NIH Director Francis Collins gently requesting* information on how NIH is addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. And the overall message is in line with the above belief that NIH can and should play a more active role in addressing sexual misconduct and harassment.

As pointed out in a Mike the Mad Biologist's post on this letter, these two Congresspeople have a lot of potential power if the Democrats return to the majority.

are ranking members of committees that oversee NIH funding–and if the Democrats take back the House or Senate, would be the leaders of those committees.

One presumes that the NIH will be motivated to take this seriously and offer up some significant response. Hopefully they can do this by what seems a rather optimistic deadline of 8/17/2018, given the letter was dated 8/06/2018.

The first 6 listed items to which NIH is being asked to response seem mostly to do with the workings of Intramural NIH, both Program and the IRP. Those are of less interest as a dramatic change, important as they are.

Most importantly, the letter puts the NIH squarely on the hook for the way that it ensures that the extramural awardee institutions are behaving. Perhaps obviously, the power of NIH to oversee issues of harassment at all of the Universities, Institutes and companies that they fund is limited. The main point of justification in this letter is the NOT-OD-15-152: Civil Rights Protections in NIH-Supported Research, Programs, Conferences and Other Activities.

To give you a flavor:

Federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, and age in all programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance, and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs or activities conducted by colleges and universities. These protections apply in all settings where research, educational programs, conferences, and other activities are supported by NIH, and apply to all mechanisms of support (i.e., grant awards, contracts and cooperative agreements). The civil rights laws protect NIH-supported investigators, students, fellows, postdocs, participants in research, and other individuals involved in activities supported by NIH.

The notice then goes on to list several specific statutes, some of which are referenced in footnotes to the letter.
The Murray/DeLauro letter concentrates on the obligation recipient institutions have to file an Assurance of Compliance with the Health and Human Services (NIH's parent organization) Office of Civil Rights and the degree to which NIH exercises oversight on these Assurances.

I think the motivations of Senatory Murray and Rep DeLauro are on full display in this passage (emphasis added).

"It therefore appears that NIH's only confirming...institution has signed, dated, and mailed the compliance document....

This lack of engagement from NIH is particularly unacceptable in light of disturbing news reports that cases of sexual harassment in the academic sciences often involve high profile faculty offenders whose behavior is considered an 'open secret'.

...colleagues may have warned new faculty and students.....but institutions themselves take little to no action."

It is on.


7 responses so far

"But you are doing fine, what are you complaining about?"

I've been seeing a few Twitter discussions that deal with a person wondering if their struggles in the academy are because of themselves (i.e., their personal merit/demerit axis) or because of their category (read: discrimination). This touches on the areas of established discrimination that we talk about around these parts, including recently the NIH grant fate of ESI applicants, women applicants and POC applicants.

In any of these cases, or the less grant-specific situations of adverse outcome in academia, it is impossible to determine on a case by case basis if the person is suffering from discrimination related to their category. I mean sure, if someone makes a very direct comment that they are marking down a specific manuscript, grant or recommendation only because the person is a woman, or of color or young then we can draw some conclusions. This never* happens. And we do all vary in our treatments/outcomes and in our merits that are intrinsic to ourselves. Sometimes outcomes are deserved, sometimes they vary by simple statistical chance and sometimes they are even better than deserved. So it is an unanswerable question, even if the chances are high that sometimes one is going to be treated poorly due to one's membership in one of the categories against which discrimination has been proven.

These questions become something other than unanswerable when the person pondering them is doing "fine".

"You are doing fine! Why would you complain about mistreatment, never mind wonder if it is some sort of discrimination you are suffering?"

I was also recently struck by a Tweeter comment about suffering a very current discrimination of some sort that came from a scientist who is by many measures "doing fine".

Once, quite some time ago, I was on a seminar committee charged with selecting a year's worth of speakers. We operated under a number of constraints, financial and topic-wise; I'm sure many of you have been on similar committees. I immediately noticed we weren't selecting a gender balanced slate and started pushing explicitly for us to include more women. Everyone sort of ruefully agreed with me and admitted we need to do better. Including a nonzero number of female faculty on this panel, btw. We did try to do better. One of the people we invited one year was a not-super-senior person (one our supposed constraints was seniority) at the time with a less than huge reputation. We had her visit for seminar and it was good if perhaps not as broad as some of the ones from more-senior people. But it all seemed appropriate and fine. The post-seminar kvetching was instructive to me. Many folks liked it just fine but a few people complained about how it wasn't up to snuff and we shouldn't have invited her. I chalked it up to the lack of seniority, maybe a touch of sexism and let it go. I really didn't even think twice about the fact that she's also a person of color.

Many years later this woman is doing fine. Very well respected member of the field, with a strong history of contributions. Sustained funding track record. Trainee successes. A couple of job changes, society memberships, awards and whatnot that one might view as testimony to an establishment type of career. A person of substance.

This person went on to have the type of career and record of accomplishment that would have any casual outsider wondering how she could possibly complain about anything given that she's done just fine and is doing just fine. Maybe even a little too fine, assuming she has critics of her science (which everyone does).

Well, clearly this person does complain, given the recent Twitt from her about some recent type of discrimination. She feels this discrimination. Should she? Is it really discrimination? After all, she's doing fine.

Looping back up to the other conversations mentioned at the top, I'll note that people bring this analysis into their self-doubt musings as well. A person who suffers some sort of adverse outcome might ask themselves why they are getting so angry. "Isn't it me?", they think, "Maybe I merited this outcome". Why are they so angered about statistics or other established cases of discrimination against other women or POC? After all, they are doing fine.

And of course even more reliable than their internal dialog we hear the question from white men. Or whomever doesn't happen to share the characteristics under discussion at the moment. There are going to be a lot of these folks that are of lesser status. Maybe they didn't get that plum job at that plum university. Or had a more checkered funding history. Fewer highly productive collaborations, etc. They aren't doing as "fine". And so anyone who is doing better, and accomplishing more, clearly could not have ever suffered any discrimination personally. Even those people who admit that there is a bias against the class will look at this person who is doing fine and say "well, surely not you. You had a cushy ride and have nothing to complain about".

I mused about the seminar anecdote because it is a fairly specific reminder to me that this person probably faced a lot of implicit discrimination through her career. Bias. Opposition. Neglect.

And this subtle antagonism surely did make it harder for her.

It surely did limit her accomplishments.

And now we have arrived. This is what is so hard to understand in these cases. Both in the self-reflection of self-doubt (imposter syndrome is a bear) and in the assessment of another person who is apparently doing fine.

They should be doing even better. Doing more, or doing what they have done more easily.

It took me a long while to really appreciate this**.

No matter how accomplished the woman or person of color might be at a given point of their career, they would have accomplished more if it were not for the headwind against which they always had to contend.

So no, they are not "doing fine". And they do have a right to complain about discrimination.

*it does. but it is vanishingly rare in the context of all cases where someone might wonder if they were victim of some sort of discrimination.
**I think it is probably my thinking about how Generation X has been stifled in their careers relative to the generations above us that made this clearest to me. It's not quite the same but it is related.

8 responses so far


There is a new blog at that seeks to give voice to people in STEM disciplines and fields of work that have experienced sexual harassment.

Such as Jen:

The men in the lab would read the Victoria’s Secret catalog at lunch in the break room. I could only wear baggy sweatshirts and turtlenecks to lab because when I leaned over my bench, the men would try to look down my shirt. Then came the targeted verbal harassment of the most crude nature

or Sam:

I’ve been the victim of retaliation by my university and a member of the faculty who was ‘that guy’ – the ‘harmless’ one who ‘loved women’. The one who sexually harassed trainees and colleagues.

or Anne:

a scientist at a company I wanted to work for expressed interest in my research at a conference. ... When I got to the restaurant, he was 100% drunk and not interested in talking about anything substantive but instead asked personal questions, making me so uncomfortable I couldn’t network with his colleagues. I left after only a few minutes, humiliated and angry that he misled about his intentions and that I missed the chance to network with people actually interested in my work

Go Read.

2 responses so far

A Political Speech You Need to Watch

Oct 13 2016 Published by under Gender

8 responses so far

NIH always jukes the stats in their favor

Oct 04 2016 Published by under Gender, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

DataHound requested information on submissions and awards for the baby MIRA program from NIGMS. His first post noted what he considered to be a surprising number of applications rejected prior to review. The second post identifies what appears to be a disparity in success for applicants who identify as Asian* compared with those who identify white.

The differences between the White and Asian results are striking. The difference between the success rates (33.8% versus. 18.4%) is statistically significant with a p value of 0.006. The difference between the the all applications success rate (29.4% versus 13.2%) is also statistically significant with a p value of 0.0008. Finally, the difference between the probabilities of administrative rejection (15.4% versus 28.1%) is statistically significant with p = 0.007.

There was also a potential sign of a disparity for applicants that identify as female versus male.

Male: Success rate = 28.9%, Probability of administrative rejection = 21.0%, All applications success rate = 22.8%

Female: Success rate = 23.2%, Probability of administrative rejection = 21.1%, All applications success rate = 18.3%

Although these results are not statistically significant, the first two parameters trend in favor of males over females. If these percentages persisted in larger sample sizes, they could become significant.

Same old, same old. Right? No matter what aspect of the NIH grant award we are talking about, men and white people always do better than women and non-white people.

The man-bites-dog part of the tale involves what NIGMS published on their blog about this.

Basson, Preuss and Lorsch report on the Feedback Loop blog entry dated 9/30/2016 that:

One step in this effort is to make sure that existing skews in the system are not exacerbated during the MIRA selection process. To assess this, we compared the gender, race/ethnicity and age of those MIRA applicants who received an award with those of the applicants who did not receive an award
We did not observe any significant differences in the gender or race/ethnicity distributions of the MIRA grantees as compared to the MIRA applicants who did not receive an award. Both groups were roughly 25% female and included ≤10% of underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. These proportions were also not significantly different from those of the new and early stage R01 grantees. Thus although the MIRA selection process did not yet enhance these aspects of the diversity of the awardee pool relative to the other groups of grantees, it also did not exacerbate the existing skewed distribution.

Hard to reconcile with DataHound's report which comes from data requested under FOIA, so I presume it is accurate. Oh, and despite small numbers of "Others"* DataHound also noted:

The differences between the White and Other category results are less pronounced but also favored White applicants. The difference between the success rates (33.8% versus. 21.1%) is not statistically significant although it is close with a p value of 0.066. The difference between the the all applications success rate (29.4% versus 16.2%) is statistically significant with a p value of 0.004. Finally, the difference between the probabilities of administrative rejection (15.4% versus 28.1%) not statistically significant with p = 0.14 although the trend favors White applicants.

Not sure how NIGMS will choose to weasel out of being caught in a functional falsehood. Perhaps "did not observe" means "we took a cursory look and decided it was close enough for government work". Perhaps they are relying on the fact that the gender effects were not statistically significant, as DataHound noted. Women PIs were 19 out of 82 (23.2%) of the funded and 63/218 (28.9%) of the reviewed-but-rejected apps. This is not the way DataHound calculated success rate, I believe, but because by chance there were 63 female apps reviewed-but-rejected and 63 male apps awarded funding the math works out the same.

There appears to be no excuse whatever for the NIGMS team missing the disparity for Asian PIs.

The probability of administrative rejection really requires some investigation on the part of NIGMS. Because this would appear to be a huge miscommunication, even if we do not know where to place the blame for the breakdown. If I were NIGMS honchodom, I'd be moving mountains to make sure that POs were communicating the goals of various FOA fairly and equivalently to every PI who contacted them.

Related Reading.
*A small number of applications for this program (403 were submitted, per DataHound's first post) means that there were insufficient numbers of applicants from other racial/ethnic categories to get much in the way of specific numbers. The NIH has rules (or possibly these are general FOIA rules) about reporting on cells that contain too few PIs...something about being able to identify them too directly.

19 responses so far

On sending trainees to conferences that lack gender balance

Neuroscientist Bita Moghaddam asked a very interesting question on Twitter but it didn't get much discussion yet. I thought I'd raise it up for the blog audience.

My immediate thought was that we should first talk about the R13 Support for Scientific Conferences mechanism. These are often used to provide some funding for Gordon Research Conference meetings, for the smaller society meetings and even some very small local(ish) conferences. Examples from NIDA, NIMH, NIGMS. I say first because this would seem to be the very easy case.

NIH should absolutely keep a tight eye on gender distribution of the meetings supported by such grant awards.The FOA reads, in part:

Additionally, the Conference Plan should describe strategies for:

Involving the appropriate representation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in the planning and implementation of, and participation in, the proposed conference.
Identifying and publicizing resources for child care and other types of family care at the conference site to allow individuals with family care responsibilities to attend.

so it is a no-brainer there, although as we know from other aspects of NIH the actual review can depart from the FOA. I don't have any experience with these mechanisms personally so I can't say how well this particular aspect is respected when it comes to awarding good (fundable) scores.

Obviously, I think any failure to address representation should be a huge demerit. Any failure to achieve representation at the same, or similar meeting ("The application should identify related conferences held on the subject during the past 3 years and describe how the proposed conference is similar to, and/or different from these."), should also be a huge demerit.

At least as far as this FOA for this scientific conference support mechanism goes, the NIH would appear to be firmly behind the idea that scientific meetings should be diverse.

By extension, we can move on to the actual question from Professor Moghaddam. Should we use the additional power of travel funds to address diversity?

Of course, right off, I think of the ACNP annual meeting because it is hands down the least diverse meeting I have ever attended. By some significant margin. Perhaps not in gender representation but hey, let us not stand only on our pet issue of representation, eh?

As far as trainees go, I think heck no. If my trainee wants to go to any particular meeting because it will help her or him in their careers, I can't say no just to advance my own agenda with respect to diversity. Like it or not, I can't expect any of them to pay any sort of price for my tender sensibilities.

Myself? Maybe. But probably not. See the aforementioned ACNP. When I attend that meeting it is because I think it will be advantageous for me, my lab or my understanding of science. I may carp and complain to certain ears that may matter about representation at the ACNP, but I'm not going on strike about it.

Other, smaller meetings? Like a GRC? I don't know. I really don't.

I thank Professor Moghaddam for making me think about it though. This is the start of a ponder for me and I hope it is for you as well.

16 responses so far

sciwo on that ridiculous Science Careers advice

Jul 13 2015 Published by under Careerism, Gender, Tribe of Science

Science published a "Working Life" bit by Eleftherios P. Diamandis titled "Getting Noticed is Half the Battle"

sciwo is not impressed

I’d sum it up like this: “If you were a man 30 years ago and ignored your family in favor of work, you might have been privileged enough to get a faculty position without an open search.

No responses yet

Gender smog in grant review

Jun 19 2015 Published by under Gender, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism

I noticed something really weird and totally unnecessary.

When you are asked to review grants for the NIH you are frequently sent a Word document review template that has the Five Criteria nicely outlined and a box for you to start writing your bullet points. At the header to each section it sometimes includes some of the wording about how you are supposed to approach each criterion.

A recent template I received says under Investigator that one is to describe how the

..investigator’s experience and qualifications make him particularly well-suited for his roles in the project?


12 responses so far

Apple Pay and inconvenience

Nov 09 2014 Published by under Gender

Neuropolarbear cannot imagine what is inconvenient about the use of credit cards.

This is most likely because he uses the highly efficient wallet and the highly efficient pants-pocket in preference to the purse.


24 responses so far

PSA: Keep your age assumptions about PIs to yourowndamnself

Jul 01 2014 Published by under Gender, Tribe of Science, Underrepresented Groups

I realize this is not news to most of you. But the Twitts are aTwitt today about the way youthful appearing faculty are treated by.....everyone.

From undergrads to grads to postdocs to faculty and administration there is a perception of what a Professor looks like.

And generally that perception means "old". See Figure 1.

Google Image Search for "Professor"

Figure 1: Google Image Search for "Professor"

So if you look in some way too young for the expectation, junior faculty are occasionally mistaken for postdocs or grad students.

This effect has a profound sex bias, of course, which is why I'm bringing it up.

Women are much more likely to report being confused for nonfaculty.

This has all sorts of knock on bad effects including how seriously their peers take them as scientists and peers, their own imposter syndrome battles and their relationships with trainees.

My request to you, if you have not considered such issues, is to just remember to check yourself. When in doubt at a poster session or academic social event, assume the person might be faculty until and unless they clue you in otherwise by what they say. Hint: When they say "my boss" or "my PI" or "my mentor" then it is okay to assume the person is a trainee. If they say "my lab" and don't further qualify then it is best to assume they are the head.

In most cases, it simply isn't necessary for you to question the person AT ALL about "who they work for".

I have only two or three experiences in my career related to this topic, as one would expect being that I present pretty overtly as male. They all came fairly early on when I was in my early thirties.

One greybeard at a poster session (at a highly greybearded and bluehaired meeting, admittedly) was absolutely insistent about asking who's lab it "really" was. I was mostly bemused because I'm arrogant and what not and I thought "Who IS this old fool?". I think I had ordered authors on the poster with me first and my trainees and/or techs in following order and this old goat actually asked something about whether it was the last author's (my tech) lab.

There were also a mere handful of times in which people's visual reaction on meeting me made it clear that I violated their expectations based on, I guess, knowing my papers. Several of these were situations in which the person immediately or thereafter admitted they were startled by how young I was.

As I said, I present as male and this is basically the expected value. Men don't get the queries and assumptions quite so much.

One final (and hilarious) flip side. I happened to have a couple of posters in a single session at a meeting once upon a time, and my postdoctoral PI was around. At one of my posters this postdoc advisor was actually asked "Didn't you use to work with [YHN]?" in the sort of tone that made it clear the person assumed I had been the PI and my advisor the trainee.

Guess what gender this advisor is?

51 responses so far

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