Sharing the Stories of Women in Neuroscience
One year ago, Dr. Nancy Padilla was reviewing a list of speaker names for a seminar series organized by postdoctoral fellows in her department. She saw nothing wrong with the list as it was full of prominent and excellent neuroscientists – that is, until her colleague pointed out that the list did not include a single woman. Nancy was shocked; she looked again, thinking that couldn’t possibly be true, but in fact, it was. In this moment, she realized that she had been blind to the lack of gender parity and was faced with the reality of her own subconscious bias. This experience prompted Nancy to take action to increase the visibility of women in neuroscience, to learn their discoveries and challenges, and to tell their stories.
Thus was born Stories of Women in Neuroscience, aka Stories of WiN. Brought together by Nancy’s call to action and a shared desire to make academia a more equitable place for women, we conceived of a project that we hoped could contribute to this end. We would interview women in neuroscience – from postdocs to junior faculty to established professors – to learn about their research and their journeys into and through neuroscience. For each woman interviewed we would write a profile highlighting their story and their work, eventually assembling a rich collection of profiles of women with different research specialties and from all walks of life. Moreover, in our conversations we hoped to gather valuable insights and advice that would support and inspire the next generation of women in neuroscience. After many months of planning and preparation, conducting interviews and writing, we officially launched our website www.storiesofwin.org with our first six profiles on July 23rd, 2019. From now on, we will release a new profile and interview with a Woman in Neuroscience every other Wednesday. We are thrilled and energized by the positive reception we’ve received thus far, and so we wanted to take the opportunity to share our vision for and motivations behind this project.
While women now receive over half of awarded PhDs in neuroscience [1,2], this representation is not reflected in neuroscience faculty. Only about 30% of all faculty in the field are women, and there are even fewer at the senior faculty level . Given that women have been equally represented in PhD programs for nearly 15 years , this can’t merely be a pipeline issue. It is encouraging to see a substantial increase in the number of women pursuing postdoctoral fellowships within the last 10 years (50% in the 2016-17 academic year compared to 38% in 2010-11) , yet simply flooding the academic pipelines is not the sole solution because implicit biases still present substantial barriers. For instance, a 2012 study found that science faculty – both women and men – rated identical applications as coming from less competent applicants if those applications carried a woman’s name . Moreover, these “women” applicants were also given lower starting salaries and offered fewer mentoring opportunities .
Even once women are secure in their faculty positions, implicit biases continue to disfavor the advancement of their careers relative to men’s. For example, women receive fewer federal funds than their male counterparts  and are often overlooked when it comes to conference invitations or other opportunities to promote their careers. For instance, a recent analysis found that women in the biosciences receive fewer research awards than their male counterparts, and those they do receive come with less money and prestige . While there are plenty of other systemic disadvantages to women that require some level of institutional change – such as the biologically ill-timed tenure clock, poor support for maternity leave and childcare, sexual harassment, and more – there are things that we as a community can do to fight some of these biases right now. First, we can denounce instances of bias when we see them – for example, by refusing to attend all-male science panels (aka “manels”). But in addition, we can also take a positive, proactive approach, like through collaborative efforts to support one another and raise up each other’s voices.
Another factor contributing to gender inequality at the faculty level is that the pipeline of women in neuroscience seems to be considerably more “leaky” than that of men. Despite the fact that women make up the slight majority of neuroscience PhD recipients, fewer women than men apply for federally-funded fellowships that would help them transition into a research faculty position . Moreover, only 38% of postdocs looking for neuroscience faculty positions in 2016-2017 were women, and a similar proportion (43%) were hired as new faculty in that same year .
Why might women who have gone through full neuroscience PhD programs and even postdoctoral fellowships be less inclined than men to pursue academic careers? Once again, there are too many contributing factors to address individually, but the lack of female representation itself is likely a big one. Young women contemplating academic careers might look at the gender distributions at their own institutions and, consciously or not, take the lack of women as evidence of the other factors that would make pursuing that career more challenging or less desirable – and thus the problem perpetuates itself. If, on the other hand, women were equally represented, there might be less reason to even question the attainability of that career choice. But until these equal numbers are obtained, one thing that may help aspiring female neuroscientists would be to hear and learn from the experiences of other women in neuroscience: how did they push through the toughest times? How do they balance their work with other aspects of life, such as maintaining hobbies or raising a family? How do they fight through the implicit biases to have an equal voice?
Stories of WiN seeks to fill both of these roles: to support the careers of women neuroscientists by increasing their visibility, and to illuminate their career journeys – full of successes and challenges – so that others might find inspiration and motivation. We recognize that in order to fully meet these goals, it is essential to include a diversity of voices in the women we spotlight – in terms of race, background, sexuality, field of research, gender identity, and more – because diversity even among the minority of women who do reach the faculty level is gravely lacking. Thus, we hope that this project may also serve as a platform for intersectional advocacy where we can talk openly about challenges facing not only women as a whole, but also women who are especially underrepresented. While there is still a long way to go, our hope is that Stories of WiN will help shine a spotlight on amazing women who have found their way to neuroscience through many different paths and who are making exciting contributions, scientific and otherwise, to our community.
All of our neuroscientist profiles and interviews can be found on our website, www.storiesofwin.org. You can also follow us on social media (@storiesofwin on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) to get the latest updates as additional profiles and interviews are released. Stay tuned as well for our official Stories of WiN podcast, coming soon to Apple Podcasts!
Stories of WiN was co-founded by Nancy Padilla, Megan Kirchgessner, Catie Profaci, Marley Rossa, and Dakota Blackman. Logo design by Marley Rossa.
We want to highlight as well a few of the many other efforts towards increasing diversity in the sciences that have helped inspire our project: Anne’s List, a site originally created by Dr. Anne Churchland containing the names of women systems neuroscientists grouped by subject area to assist conferences in diversifying their speaker lists; 500 Women Scientists, an organization that provides resources and support for women and other underrepresented groups in science; 500 Queer Scientists, which aims to increase the visibility of LGBTQ+ scientists; and Diversify STEM Conferences, which offers lists of speakers from many underrepresented groups and across STEM fields.
1 Ramos, R.L. et al. (2017) Diversity of Graduates from Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral Degree Neuroscience Programs in the United States. J. Undergrad. Neurosci. Educ. 16, A6–A13
2 by, P. (2017) Society for Neuroscience – Report of Neuroscience Departments & Programs Survey (Academic Year 2016-2017), McKinley Advisors.
3 Moss-Racusin, C.A. et al. (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109, 16474–16479
4 Oliveira, D.F.M. et al. (2019) Comparison of National Institutes of Health Grant Amounts to First-Time Male and Female Principal Investigators. JAMA 321, 898–900
5 Ma, Y. et al. (2019) Women who win prizes get less money and prestige. Nature 565, 287–288
6 Pohlhaus, J.R. et al. (2011) Sex differences in application, success, and funding rates for NIH extramural programs. Acad. Med. 86, 759–767