T H E   N I H   C A T A L Y S T     S E P T E M B E R  –  O C T O B E R   2001

G U E S T E D I T O R I A L F R O M T H E A S S I S T A N T D I R E C T O R, O I R



Joan P. Schwartz







Half the doctoral degrees awarded in the biomedical sciences these days are going to women. Similar diversity ought to be reflected in the ranks of the NIH workplace.

A recent talk on "The Advancement of Women Scientists" by Dr. Virginia Valian, professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York, stimulated me to think hard about the representation of intramural women scientists at all levels of NIH. Valian opened by noting that although women now enjoy smoother entry into the biomedical work world, they still encounter obstacles to advancement once there—not just in science but across all fields. Is this also true at NIH?


Ten years ago, then-NIH Director Bernadine Healy established a Task Force on the Status of NIH Intramural Women Scientists. Its charge was to:

Assess the career development and status of intramural women scientists with regard to recruitment, retention, compensation, and reentry into the work force.

Determine whether there were impediments to the career development of women scientists at NIH.

Recommend to the deputy director for intramural research (DDIR) and the NIH director administrative and structural changes to correct any identified problems.

The task force identified problem areas and recommended actions to remedy them (see The NIH Catalyst, June 1993, for a summary of the report). I would like to discuss each in turn in terms of what we have accomplished since that time and where improvement is still needed.

To address the need to better inform women scientists about NIH policies and procedures, the task force concluded that each IC ought to have a woman scientist advisor (WSA) who would serve as a liaison between the IC’s female cohort and the administration, particularly the scientific director (SD). The WSAs now comprise a committee that meets every six to eight weeks to discuss ongoing issues relevant to women scientists. A subcommittee meets on a regular basis with the DDIR to discuss how best to implement changes that the WSAs have identified as necessary.

To ensure equal compensation for equal work, a process was undertaken in 1994 whereby each WSA, together with her SD, compared the pay of tenured male and female scientists in the IC. Subsequently, in concert with the DDIR, they came up with a list of scientists who needed pay adjustments. A one-time agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services allowed NIH to correct the pay of 49 women (1/4 of the total) and four men, including adjusting for two years’ worth of back pay and benefits.

As a result of the expanded use of Title 42, with its potentially higher pay scales, in the appointment of tenured scientists, a similar analysis is needed now to ensure that women scientists of equal accomplishments have not fallen behind in compensation. At the same time, women need to become informed about and request Title 42 appointments. An Office of Intramural Research (OIR) database that includes all tenured scientists, tenure-track investigators, and staff scientists and clinicians is close to completion. That database will be used to assess pay across the ICs over the next two months. If significant disparities are found, the appropriate SD will be asked to review the data and make corrections as needed.

To enhance the visibility of women scientists of all racial and ethnic groups, the task force advised that care be taken to ensure their proportionate inclusion as speakers in all NIH-sponsored meetings, symposia, and seminar series. The most dramatic step taken was to name one of the most prestigious of the NIH Lectures after Dr. Margaret Pittman, the first woman laboratory chief at NIH. Seven distinguished women scientists have now presented the Pittman lecture. In addition, the percentage of speakers who are women has increased dramatically in all the lecture series.

However, vigilant women scientists still spot symposia or meetings with a negligible number of women speakers. Obviously, more work needs to be done.

The need for flexibility in child-rearing and other family-related issues was addressed governmentwide by the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1998 and by the agreement of the SDs that comparable benefits should be provided to our trainees even though they are not government employees. Availability of sufficient high-quality childcare, at a price that our trainees and employees can afford, remains a problem, although NIH is expanding its own facilities with the opening of the new POPI (Parents of Pre-Schoolers, Inc.) in September 2001 and with a new daycare center on the drawing board.

Finally, establishment of uniform tenure and promotion plans to enable women to compete more equally has occurred, and OIR has been tracking numbers of women in tenured and tenure-track positions ever since. Since the tenure-track plan was put into place in 1994, national searches are required for all new positions, tenured or tenure-track, and WSAs or their representatives are on every search committee.

The percentage of women on tenure-track has ranged from 21 to 29 percent and is currently 25 percent. This is lower than the percent of women who are postdoctoral fellows (which we guesstimate to be about 40 percent), but higher than the number of tenured women, which has remained constant at 18 percent over the past 10 years. In contrast, women comprise 34 percent of our staff scientists and staff clinicians.

Thus, NIH has taken positive steps to promote the advancement of women scientists in the intramural program, and this has resulted in improvements in some areas but not all. If NIH wants to increase the representation of women, it has to determine why fewer women are being selected for tenure-track positions than are represented in the postdoc pool. Do they apply and not get selected, or do they never apply?

Removable Obstacles

Valian described two impediments to the advancement of women—gender schema and accumulation of advantage.

Gender schema refers to a set of gender biases harbored by most people, consciously or otherwise: We perceive men as task-oriented and capable of independent action; we perceive women as feeling and nurturing. In a study by Heilman et al. (J Appl Psychol 74:935, 1989), groups of managers were asked to rate other managers by means of listed adjectives.

"Even successful women managers were perceived as having less leadership ability than successful men managers. Furthermore, women managers were seen as having negative qualities that men managers did not have, such as being bitter, quarrelsome, and selfish."

Accumulation of advantage refers to the molehills of disadvantage that add up to a mountain. A computer simulation of promotion practices at a hypothetical company (Martell et al., Am. Psychol. 51:157, 1996) showed the effect of a 1 percent bias against the promotion of women. The company had eight levels, with equal numbers of men and women eligible for promotion at each level.

After repeated promotions, the highest level had become 65 percent male and 35 percent female. "Operating at a minute disadvantage," Valian observed, "can have substantial long-term effects."

We have seen what may be a similar phenomenon at NIH. We are currently analyzing tenure-track dropouts, and the data suggest that a higher percentage of women leave the tenure track. If that means they’re getting fabulous job offers elsewhere, great! But preliminary analyses suggest a small bias that favors men on the tenure track with more space, larger budgets, and higher salaries.

That small bias implies the possibility that women are not receiving the support they need to succeed in the tenure track. If so, this is indeed an example of accumulation of advantage, and the NIH must correct it. And men need to understand the subtle and not-so-subtle disadvantages women have in science and not contribute to this problem.

The same dynamic applies to tenured women. If they have fewer resources—which, again, some analyses indicate is the case—they will not do as well and therefore will not get promoted as quickly or receive the higher salaries.


What to do? I often tell women we need to take assertiveness training. Valian would say we must learn to negotiate from a position of strength, which means we need a greater sense of entitlement.

Working hard and being an excellent scientist are not enough–self-promotion is required. There is general agreement that even women in leadership positions must work twice as hard for the same recognition. According to Dr. Alice Huang, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, we need to understand power and how to gain it in our own right. We must become aware of what is available and ask for it.

One thing that would help is an increase in the number of women in leadership positions in the intramural program. The change from no women SDs to four has meant a voice for women at the highest level. The number of female lab and branch chiefs increased from 4 percent to 10 percent after a concerted effort in 1994–1995 but has hardly changed since then.

One take-home message is that opening the doors for equal opportunity is not enough. We have to take very positive steps to encourage women to apply for those available positions, and we have to offer a supportive, equally endowed environment. And we have to acknowledge women’s accomplishments at every stage.

Finally, those of us who have achieved leadership positions need to be mindful of our obligation to serve as a role model for those coming onto the scene. In the words of Mary Bunting, a past president of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass.: "Once you are in a position of power, do not forget that you are still a woman."

Joan P. Schwartz, Assistant Director
Office of Intramural Research



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