Where Are All the Women in Neuroscience?

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Only one-in-five papers published in Nature Neuroscience had a female author in 2006, but male dominance of neuroscience is slowly changing. 

By Laura Dubreuil Vall (Research Engineer in Neuroscience, Starlab)

In my job I usually spend my time among books in neuroscience, papers in biotechnology and mathematical formulas that model neural connectivity. That means I spend most of my time working with men, with the exception of a few women.

I got used to this situation some years ago when I started studying telecommunications engineering. Males’ presence in technical degrees like this is usually much higher than females’. According to the latest statistics from the National Science Foundation, only 18% of undergraduate students enrolled in engineering degrees are women. Besides, the number of male PhDs in science jobs outnumber females by two and a half times.This is not a new situation, and our society is mostly aware of it.

Neuroscience’s Women Problem

But fields such as neuroscience are not usually thought to be male-dominated, perhaps because of their theoretical link to psychology and sociology. Let me give you some numbers. Within science, the subfields with the most female-friendly ratios are psychology (where there are twice as many employed women as men), political science (equally employed), and anthropology/sociology (equally employed). Surprisingly, in biology and life sciences, about twice as many jobs go to male versus female PhDs. Neuroscience, in particular, has a reputation for male domination. As of 2006, only one-in-five papers published in Nature Neuroscience has a female corresponding author. Usually, women leave the laboratory at higher rates than men throughout the world and across their careers, and the percentage of women in the top ranks is very low. The Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs reported in 2003 that half of neuroscience graduate students were female, but 25% of tenure-track faculty was female.

“People are still arguing over whether there are cognitive differences between men and women,” says Ben Barres, chair of neurobiology at Stanford, in a New York Times interview.  This assertion is known as “the Larry Summers Hypothesis,” named for the former Harvard president who suggested that the paucity of top women scientists might be due to lack of “innate aptitudes.” Barres asserts that there are no differences in cognitive ability between the sexes; it is the treatment of women what accounts for the gender gap in scientific fields, and so the under-representation of women is entirely based on social factors. Some supporters of the Summers Hypothesis also suggest that temperament, not ability, holds women back in science. “Female scientists who are competitive or assertive are generally banished by their male colleagues,” Dr. Barres says. In any case, “an aggressive competitive spirit” matters less to scientific success than curiosity, perseverance and self-confidence.

On Plasticity

The biggest recent revolution in neuroscience has been the discovery of the brain’s “plasticity”, or ability to change structure and function in response to experiences. “It’s not hard to believe that differences between the brains of male and female adults have nothing to do with genes or the Y chromosome but may be the biological expression of different social settings,” says biologist Dr. Joan Roughgarden of Stanford. Dr. Roughgarden thinks that “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.”

But one should always hold out hope for improvement. According to professor Huda Zoghbi, there are now many more big-time success stories of women scientists who can serve as role models for students. Academic institutions and funding agencies are also increasingly choosing more women for leadership positions. This clearly shows an uptrend in the number of women in the field of neuroscience.

It has been one year since I started working at the neuroscience department of Starlab, where we dedicate our efforts to advanced data analysis and custom solutions for brain monitoring and neuromodulation. We work closely with our sister company Neuroelectrics, which offers custom devices for brain activity capture and brain stimulation. Neuroelectrics’ CEO, Ana Maiques, is a clear example of the increase in women in neuroscience. She is one of the few women executives leading a Catalan tech company. “In our society, family and school have always focused women to non-technical degrees. This trend is now slowly changing,” she says. She thinks that “leadership should not be linked to the CEO’s gender, but we should rather combine males’ and females’ ways of leading.”

As I see it, we are undergoing a slow gender revolution that will hit all fields, including neuroscience. Let time take its course.

laura photoAbout the guest blogger: Laura Dubreuil Vall (@lauradvall) studied telecommunications engineering at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, and pursued her master thesis at MIT. She is currently working in R&D and biz dev at the neuroscience department of Starlab, where she has a special interest in the intersection of technology, neuroscience and human nature.