Ginther lands grant to study why women leave sciences

Something happens to women in the sciences that causes a substantial number to leave the field before attaining academic careers. Donna Ginther intends to find out what’s happening and why.

Donna Ginther

Ginther, professor of economics, has received a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research the influences on women in biomedical sciences. The four-year grant is part of an estimated $16.8 million grant program by the NIH that has selected 14 research projects from across the country to address such factors in behavioral science and engineering as well. The grants respond to a 2007 National Academies report that urgently called for a broad, national effort to maximize the potential of women scientists and engineers.

Ginther will collaborate with Shulamit Kahn of Boston University for the project. In previous research, Ginther and Kahn found that an inordinate number of women leave science fields at about the time they reach the post-doctoral level, and before they secure an academic career. In this project, she will examine biomedical sciences specifically and ask two questions: are post-doctoral research positions productive for a long-term career, or are they used instead to wait out tight job markets until more positions are available.

Along with her colleagues, Ginther hopes to identify factors that lead women to leave sciences in hopes of helping realize potential solutions to the problem.

“Understanding the issues that impact the recruitment, retention, reentry and advancement of women in biomedical and behavioral science careers will help us develop strategies to assist women at critical points," said Vivian Pinn, director of the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health and co-chair of the NIH Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers.

In previous research projects, Ginther has examined gender differences in pay and promotion in other academic disciplines including the humanities and social sciences. She recently co-authored a study with Raynard Kington, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health and Walter Schaffer, senior scientific adviser for extramural research, also at the National Institutes of Health. That paper studied the academic career paths of all underrepresented groups in biomedical sciences. Ginther made a presentation about the findings to the NIH on Oct. 19.

In an effort to find out why a “career gap” exists when it comes to women in the sciences, Ginther will examine several factors, such as the effects of publications and grants on career outcomes, gender differences in promotion and pay and the rise in the number of international post-doctoral researchers and the increase in commercial biomedicine on women’s academic careers.

“There’s overlap between the projects, but they’re not the same,” Ginther said of her work. “We found that the challenges for women are very different than those of other underrepresented minority researchers. We hope to soon be able to understand these challenges better.”

The research comes at a crucial time. A “gender gap” exists in the biomedical sciences, at a time when about half of all doctoral degrees in the discipline are being earned by women, but far fewer advance to academic careers.

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