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National Institutes of Health (NIH) Gender Inequality Task Force Report

Extensive NIH-funded research has documented persistent gender inequality in biomedicine. In a collection of articles supported by the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health and published in the journal Academic Medicine in August 2016, women faculty were reported to have lower salaries, smaller start-up packages, and limited authorship roles. The findings suggest that these factors might be direct contributors to perpetuating the lack of gender diversity in the academic ranks of biomedical research careers. Across the United States, women comprise 39% of tenure-track faculty, 23% of tenured faculty, and even fewer hold leadership positions (department chairs, medical school deans). The situation is even worse for certain racial/ethnic groups who comprise 10% of biomedical Ph.D. recipients but only 4% of research faculty. The underrepresentation of women cannot be explained by an insufficient pool of highly qualified women, because women have exceeded half of Ph.D. graduates in the biological sciences for more than 10 years.

Underrepresentation of women in the NIH Intramural Research Program (IRP) among its tenured and tenure-track scientists is identical to national data, heightening concerns regarding the appearance of gender inequality in the NIH IRP. Research indicates that issues of gender inequality are part of an unsupportive culture and climate experienced in microenvironments, along with structural issues that negatively influence career advancement of women. NIH is committed to identifying and correcting any inequality in the recruitment and advancement of all scientists by directly addressing the factors that impede women’s careers. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins issued a charge to the Addressing NIH Gender Inequality Action Task Force (TF), which reports to the NIH Steering Committee, to develop specific, actionable, recommendations. These actions should go beyond formal policies and should include institutional processes for transparency and accountability.

The TF met eight times between October 2016 and January 2017, leading to the recommendations in this document (read the full report). The TF believes strongly that preventing gender inequality and mitigating its consequences starts at the top and requires leadership action and accountability. Institutional change is essential for sustainability as leadership positions change over time. An overview of the TF’s recommendations, addressing both individual-level and institutional-level issues, appears in the report. For maximal and rapid effectiveness toward addressing gender inequality in the NIH IRP, and beyond, the TF recommends integrated solutions that effect systems-level culture change. Because the TF’s recommendations align with general principles of institutional change, and transparency in NIH Institute or Center-specific data collection and public dissemination, the recommendations also apply to other underrepresented groups and should provide a general compass for addressing workforce inequality more broadly.

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