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Supporting and Promoting Women in Science: Actionable Strategies from the NIH

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03.29.22 By Marie A. Bernard
Science students working in a laboratory
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The scientific enterprise must redouble efforts to address its lack of gender diversity and foster a culture of inclusive excellence where women scientists are not marginalized, diminished, or harassed in any setting.

So concludes a March 2022 Nature Communications article I co-authored with Dr. Kelly G. Ten Hagen, Senior Investigator, NIH National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; Dr. Janine A. Clayton, NIH Associate Director for Research on Women’s Health and Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health; and Dr. Carrie Wolinetz, Deputy Director for Health and Life Science, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

We describe the pioneering strategies that the NIH is employing to overcome the barriers and inequities women scientists encounter throughout their career pathways. And we call on others in the scientific enterprise to implement similar policies and procedures to create inclusive workplaces for women.

Achieving gender equity is a critical part of advancing biomedical research to improve human health. Abundant evidence demonstrates a diverse scientific workforce leads to greater innovation and creativity in science.

Women’s Low Representation in Science

Women remain underrepresented in science, despite gains in recent years. In the United States, women account for only 18 percent of leadership positions in medicine, although they earn nearly half of all medical school degrees. U.S. women of color represent just 13 percent of medical faculty, with little improvement during the past decade, according to data presented at a 2020 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine workshop.

Women scientists face gender discrimination, harassment, salary inequities, and many other workplace injustices that hinder their career success; those with intersecting identities encounter an even greater set of challenges. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting women scientists, who report more significant losses in productivity and more caregiving responsibilities than their male colleagues.

How Institutions Can Drive Lasting Change

The NIH is committed to addressing barriers to women’s participation in science, and it has made considerable progress on this issue. For example, we describe the NIH’s strong stand against sexual harassment and numerous other steps the NIH has taken to ensure safe, fair, and inclusive work environments for women scientists.

But we also acknowledge that additional leadership, data-driven accountability, resources, and recognition are required to achieve true equity and inclusion for women scientists. These efforts must include ongoing assessment of environments, policies, and practices, in addition to multipronged approaches to address inequities and obstacles as they are identified.

The NIH’s new initiatives to promote gender equity include providing supplemental funding to help sustain an investigator’s research during critical life events such as childbirth, adoption, and primary caregiving responsibility. Another initiative recognizes institutions that successfully and systemically address gender diversity and equity issues, increasing awareness and adoption of replicable, evidence-based approaches to enhancing faculty diversity.

These strategies—and the others we outline in our commentary—provide a path to enduring, system-wide change. I encourage you to read the full article and consider how your institution can implement policies and procedures that enhance the participation of women in science. The COSWD Office has numerous resources to help you get started. For example, the Recruitment Search Protocol helps institutions conduct systemic, unbiased talent searches, while the implicit bias training module is an evidence-based tool that helps individuals recognize and minimize bias.

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