Navigation and service

Yes, it does matter

The Facts of Gender Bias in (Neuro)science

Jülich, 7 March – An international team of neuroscientists have been reviewing the evidence on gender bias in their field. Their findings—together with proposed solutions on various levels—are now published in the European Journal of Neuroscience. In support of these findings, the paper has been signed by a number of leading neuroscientists.

"Do we still need this today?" When the "Women in Neuroscience Repository" (WiNRepo, increasing the visibility of women in neuroscience) was set up one year ago, it met with positive feedback but also a significant amount of doubt from colleagues. Many seemed to believe that the days when women in science had to be supported in order to gain equality were over. However, the authors of an opinion paper published in the European Journal of Neuroscience think differently.

"When we promoted WiNRepo, we were often confronted with the position that gender bias was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, we observed and experienced ourselves that this is not the case. Many people, scientists included, are simply not aware of it", says Dr Sarah Genon, co-Chair of the WiNRepo initiative and group leader at the Institute of Medicine and Neurosciences at Jülich. As a result of the feedback and their personal experience, the WiNRepo Board decided to approach the subject scientifically. "Our aim is to provide a broad view of gender bias in neuroscience. We saw that this subject had been raised from specific angles before, but we did not find an article giving an overview". In their work ‘Gender bias in (neuro)science: facts, consequences and solutions’, the authors have gathered evidence of gender inequality in academia, especially focusing on neuroscience. "It is our aim to provide facts for the scientific community and to show the implications this has on science and society", says Genon who co-authored the paper.

Sarah Genon vor weißer Tafel mit Begriffen, die in Beziehung zu Hirnforschung und Gender stehenDr Sarah Genon is co-Chair of the WiNRepo initiative and group leader at the Institute of Medicine and Neurosciences at Jülich
Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich / Sascha Kreklau

Under-representation is a problem

Under-representation poses a problem not only for gender equality and diversity as desirable values for society, but also for productivity, for the diversity of scientific research, and consequently for the breadth of scientific results available to the field and to society as a whole. As for productivity, diverse teams have been shown to outperform homogenous groups in innovation, flexibility, problem-solving, and decision making, the authors state in their paper.

As for the breadth of research, they note that “people tend to study people like themselves, to the detriment of other genders, classes and races that are part of our society”. This leaves women’s health understudied because women were less represented or even excluded from clinical trials. The authors found a similar situation in neuroimaging studies, many of which targeted populations of highly educated white people. With machine learning becoming more and more prevalent, it is important to prevent artificial intelligence from taking over the human biases reflected in the data from which machines learn.

Although the focus of the discussion, led by University College of London researcher Jessica Schrouff, lies in neuroscience, it also includes data from beyond this field.

The findings

Evidence shows that there are fewer women in senior positions in academia and that they are typically paid less than their male peers, the authors claim.
This is due to a number of interrelating factors which the study identifies:

  1. Women leave academia more often than men after having children or wanting families.
  2. There is a lower acceptance rate for papers with a female last author.
  3. Women are given lower recognition for their contribution.
  4. Funding tends to go to men.
  5. Women scientists are not as often invited to conferences and workshops as men are.
  6. Women are less likely to be hired for tenure-track positions at the same competence level. Women also tend to underestimate their scientific competence and are inclined to hand in less competitive resumes, the authors say.
  7. Women are underrepresented in the peer-review process and on deciding bodies, which might sustain some of the aspects mentioned above.

"Mind the Gap" - englischsprachiger Hinweis für BahnfahrerCopyright: Pixabay Licence

What can be done?

Jessica Schrouff and her colleagues discuss a number of ways of tackling the problem at different levels.

Institutions may implement "stop-the-clock" policies for child bearing and care taking, organize bias training sessions for male and female scientists in order to raise awareness or implement double-blind reviewing, for example for grant applications. This means that not only is the applicant — not informed of the identity of his or her reviewers (as is typically the case), but conversely, the reviewers are also kept in the dark with regards to the identity of the applicant. One recommendation is to actively collect and share data concerning the gender related outcomes of the current system such as the relationship between the number of women on deciding bodies and the number of awarded women. Such data would be intended to help define and evaluate new policies.
Gender quotas are a popular and effective means of increasing diversity where necessary. However, they may produce undesirable counter-effects as the value of women’s work may be questioned and their success attributed to their gender rather than to their academic achievements. This concern was particularly raised by women scientists.

Recommendations at the organizational level, for example for organizing conferences, aim at favouring diversity in all aspects of the event. This may be achieved by requiring gender-balanced nominations for all organizing committees and reviewer pools, as well as in symposium or workshop submissions. Women scientist’s attendance rates at conferences may be improved by actively searching for candidates on lists or repositories instead of inviting the same well-known speakers again and again. Providing childcare facilities at conferences is very important in order to enable mothers with young children to attend.

Finally, the authors encourage individuals – women and men – to become aware of one’s own and other’s biases, to attend training sessions and to speak up when instances of gender bias have been identified. Such occurrences should be addressed in a non-blaming manner, except in cases of clear misconduct or conscious discrimination, the authors stress. “Non-constructive or blaming statements, whether true or not, only damage the discussion”, the authors maintain.

Women scientists are encouraged to get listed on directories or repositories thus making it easier for other scientists and organizers to find them. The WiNRepo was set up with this goal in mind. Female neuroscientists can register and detail their field of study in the database. "We have included specific features on the website to address some of the skeptical comments, for example by enabling other scientists to leave positive feedback on the talks or contributions of our listed members", Genon says. "We think it is important to provide the opportunity for researchers and organizers to make decisions based on facts."

Meanwhile it would be wrong to assume that none of this is currently being put into practice. “Several organizations already apply some of the measures stated. "The Society for Neuroscience, for example, is very aware of gender issues”, Genon says. “And the Organization of Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) now provides support for traveling to conferences with children."

Support

When the authors presented their findings in their institutions, for example at Stanford where Jessica Schrouff previously studied, UCL in London, or at FZ Jülich, they met with positive feedback from senior researchers, some of whom signed the opinion paper in support. Among the signatories are Prof. Katrin Amunts, scientific head of the Human Brain Project and director of the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1), and Prof. Simon Eickhoff, director at the INM-7, Genon’s institute. The signatories also include early supporters of the WiNRepo initiative such as Jean-Baptiste Poline (McGill University, Canada), Gael Varoquaux (INRIA, France), and Chris Gorgowleski (Stanford University, USA). Other, related initiatives such as BiasWatchNeuro and The Alba Network also support the cause, says Jessica Schrouff. The BiasWatchNeuo initiative for example specifically gathers statistics on gender bias in neuroscience—data which other researchers can access and which have been used in the present paper as well.

So does that mean that the situation is not so bad after all, especially in neuroscience? Does the progress already made in the field perhaps even enable the discussion in the first place?

“Well, one has to know that Jülich is particularly gender-equality friendly,” Genon replies. “There is a great openness for the subject and the culture is quite special, giving women opportunities”, Genon says. “Women are encouraged to participate in a number of committees for example. But this is not the case everywhere. I realized this when I found myself to be about the only woman at some international events. In some other countries and other institutions, gender balance is not promoted as much”. As a result, Genon experienced gender bias and stereotyping towards her. “However, at conferences I met other women in the field who were in the same situation. That’s when we decided to work together towards decreasing gender bias.”

There may also be another factor, Genon notes: “In my opinion, neuroscience is more interdisciplinary than other fields, bringing together scientists from various disciplines. It’s in its nature if you will”, Genon says. “Diversity is already lived to some extent and its positive effects are already known in the community. That’s what we would like to build on. We therefore wish to open the discussion to a broader field.”

Join in the discussion

Opens new windowScreenshot of the WiNRepo website
Copyright: https://www.winrepo.org/

The WiNRepo Committee invites all women neuroscientists to register on the repository by creating a profile (https://www.winrepo.org/list/create). All researchers in neuroscience, in particular senior researchers, are encouraged to write recommendations to actively support women profiles by leaving positive feedback about previous talks or collaborations.

What is next for the team? The OHBM has invited the WiNRepo Board to present their initiative within a symposium on gender bias at its conference in Rome in June 2019.

The Committee also runs a Facebook page and has a twitter account.

Women in Neuroscience Repository (WiNRepo)
Die Initiative auf Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WiNRepository/
Die Initiative auf Twitter: @WINRePo1

Similar initiatives

BiasWatchNeuro: https://biaswatchneuro.com/
The Alba Network: A networking and mentoring programme website still to be launched: http://www.alba.network/)

Website of the Institute

Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine – Brain and Behaviour (INM-7)

Original publication

Gender bias in (neuro)sciences: facts, consequences and solutions;
Jessica Schrouff, Doris Pischedda, Sarah Genon, Gregory Frnys, Ana Luísa Pinho, Eliana Vassena, Antonietta G. Liuzzi, Fabio . Ferriera;
European Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1111/ejn.14397
https://doi.org/10.1111/ejn.14397

About Jessica Schrouff

Dr Jessica Schrouff is a Biomedical Engineer from Belgium. She studied in the interdisciplinary fields of machine learning and neuroscience at Stanford University (USA) and University College London (UK) before recently moving to industry. She now investigates the theory and application of artificial intelligence to programming languages. After seeing yet another advert for a workshop including over ten male speakers and a single female speaker at the beginning of 2018, Jessica took matters into her own hands and sent out a form for women neuroscientists to fill in. A couple of days later thanks to the help of her husband Grégory Fryns, a basic website included the 250 profiles already gathered. It was to be the foundation of WiNRepo.

About Sarah Genon

Dr Sarah Genon is a Belgian clinical psychologist and neuroscientist. Her field of research focuses on using data mining approaches on big datasets of neuroimaging and behavioral data to study the relationship between brain large-scale organization and behavior in healthy people and in patients with brain diseases. She has always been interested in gender issues even though she was not aware of it for a long time. “When I was a child, I asked myself if I would rather have been born a boy than a girl. At the time I did not understand why. It only later occurred to me that this was because of what boys were allowed to do, the amount of action attributed to being a male. The passive fairytale-princess stereotype never appealed to me as a life accomplishment.” While working as a scientist at Forschungszentrum Jülich, Sarah Genon received the Google form for WiNRepo and noticed that the founder of this initiative was Jessica, whom she knew from the Cyclotron Research Centre (Liège, Belgium). Realizing that their career paths, despite geographically pulling them away from each other, brought them both into the same societally issues, Sarah Genon and Jessica Schrouff decided to join forces to build up a committee linked to WiNRepo to proactively support gender equality.


Birgit Pfeiffer