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Career Challenges For Women In Epidemiology Discussed At SER Symposium

A recent paper and commentary published in Epidemiology by Enrique Schisterman and colleagues and Reshma Jagsi, respectively, on the careers of women in science and epidemiology were catalysts for a special symposium at the recent SER meeting entitled “Gender Disparities in Citations in Epidemiology: Data Reflections, and Looking to the Future”.

According to the organizers, Schisterman and Sunni Mumford, “although more women are entering science-based fields, women biomedical scientists are on average still paid less, promoted less, are less likely to receive grant funding, and are more likely to leave their careers than men.” The questions tackled by these investigators are whether or not these patterns are true for women in epidemiology. Data on the role and status of women were presented at the symposium and reflections made by departmental leaders and journal editors on the implications of current patterns discovered in the epidemiology profession.

Current Evidence

According to Schisterman, survey investigations they designed to assess the representation of women in epidemiology societies, in editorial positions, in departmental positions, and by academic rank and other positions show there is a greater number of female than male epidemiologists and also more female epidemiology students. Female epidemiologists are younger and early career.

Schisterman also provided information about whether or not there are gender disparities in publication metrics in the top epidemiology journals. He reported first authors were more likely to be female during the 2008-2012 period studied while last authors were more likely to be male, and articles with male first and last authors were more likely to have their papers cited especially for highly cited articles. The organizers asked “If epidemiology continues to be practiced by a majority of women, it remains to be seen if these patterns will change over time, and the question arises as to whether or not this gender difference will balance differently over time.”

Some of the insights gained at the symposium and recapped by Schisterman are described below.

Insights from the deans:

Michelle Williams opened with a simple saying: “What’s important gets measured”. While the data, demonstrating a bias in citations for women in epidemiology, are an important first step in addressing gender disparities, they create more questions than answers, and present an opportunity to further explore alternative explanations using mixed methods research. Dr. Williams also highlighted the “pipeline” issue, with an influx of junior female epidemiologists not met by a similar departure for senior faculty. Along with Dr. Williams, Germaine Buck Louis highlighted the importance of good citation practices, and a need for investigators to both improve their own citation practices and to focus on transmitting those practices to the next generation of epidemiologists through mentoring. Dr. Buck Louis also suggested that journals report their metrics on the gender distribution of authors of submitted as well as published manuscripts.

Insights from the chairs:

The department chairs drew their commentary from a pervasive gender bias in academics, and highlighted the importance of senior faculty in perpetuating or challenging gender biases in authorship practices. Andrew Olshan emphasized the power of senior faculty in decision-making across the board, and the need for departments to meet the challenge of discussing gender inequities. Diane Lauderdale challenged the audience to flip the question to how male scholars’ higher status in academia could lead to disparities in authorship and citation practices, and suggested that some of the disparity may be due to men consolidating power through self-promotion and preference for male mentors and male-dominated research groups.

Insights from editors:

Timothy Lash noted that while only one of five editors at Epidemiology is female, women are better represented among associate editors, echoing the pipeline issue for women faculty. Citing the commentary in Epidemiology by Reshma Jagsi, Lash noted that a similar trend can be found among K awards, with men who receive K awards receiving further funding more often than women. Lash echoed the concern that the pipeline bringing the next generation of women into epidemiologic research may not only be slow, but may actually be leaking. All this gave more than enough reason to follow Jagsi’s recommendations for prompt actions institutions should take to promote equity in our field, including mentoring, bridge funding, and bias literacy programs.  ■

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