How the NIH Director Is Working to Stamp Out Sexism in STEM

How the NIH Director Is Working to Stamp Out Sexism in STEM

The gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is well documented. It is so important that several research centers around the world study the problem. Another indication of the issue’s importance is that in June 2019, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Francis S. Collins, announced he would act to stop one factor contributing to the gender gap: the underrepresentation of women in speaking roles at scientific conferences.

About the NIH

National Institutes of Health

The NIH is located within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Its missions and goals are to protect and improve health, prevent disease, expand knowledge in biomedical science, and conduct science with integrity, accountability, and social responsibility. It is the largest biomedical research center in the world.

The official history of the NIH began in 1887, in a small laboratory at the Marine Health Service (MHS), later known as the U.S. Public Health Service. One MHS role was to examine ship passengers arriving in the United States for signs of disease, including cholera and yellow fever. It was assigned this duty by Congress to prevent epidemics.

The NIH has relied on Congress to legislate its growth and programming throughout its history. Since it was founded over 130 years ago, it has supported research by 156 Nobel Prize winners. This research has led to the development of MRI technology and understanding of how viruses can cause cancer, how to control cholesterol, and how human brains process visual information, among other groundbreaking results.

About Dr. Francis S. Collins

Dr. Francis S. Collins
Dr. Francis S. Collins | IU School of Medicine | Flickr

Dr. Francis S. Collins has served as director of the NIH for more than a decade. Before directing the NIH, Collins led the international Human Genome Project, which completed a finished sequence of human DNA in 2003. Dr. Collins was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 and the National Medal of Science in 2009.

Dr. Collins received his BS in chemistry from the University of Virginia, his PhD in physical chemistry from Yale University, and his MD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been responsible for important research into the genetics of cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, endocrine cancer, and type 2 diabetes, among other diseases. More recently, his research interests have focused on genetic-based personalized medicine.

About Manels, Manferences, and Himposiums

A troubling trend in scientific conferences is the overreliance on white men in speaking roles. In fact, in January 2018, the National Academy of Sciences in the United States published a study documenting gender inequalities in more than 3,600 colloquium talks sponsored by 50 leading universities. This study found that at these institutions, men gave twice as many colloquium talks as women in six academic disciplines, including the STEM disciplines of biology and bioengineering. The study also found no evidence that women refused invitations to speak more often than men.

People have come up with a variety of slang terms to describe this overreliance on male speakers, including “manels,” “manferences,” and “himposiums.” This trend accompanies research findings published in 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine documenting the negative effects of sexual harassment in these STEM disciplines. As a result, Dr. Collins and the entire NIH have taken action to initiate change.

How the NIH Director Is Working to Stop Sexism

In June 2019, Dr. Collins announced in a statement published on the NIH website that he would stop attending conferences that could not demonstrate attention to offering a diverse slate of presenters in speaking roles. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Collins indicated he would not establish specific quotas for the percentage of speakers who must be female or from other underrepresented groups, because in some specialties, there are not enough experts who are members of these groups. However, he said he would no longer attend conferences that did not demonstrate efforts to be inclusive.

In addition to this revolutionary announcement by Dr. Collins, in 2019 the NIH also announced on its website other efforts to combat sexism in science. This announcement included the news that after following up on sexual harassment accusations, it had replaced 14 principal investigators conducting NIH-sponsored research, removed 14 individuals from the peer review process, and had received notice from employing institutions that 21 principal investigators receiving NIH funds were disciplined. In addition, the announcement indicated that the NIH disciplined 10 employees for sexual harassment infractions and issued warnings or required training for 10 other employees.

These efforts from the nation’s top public health research facility have the potential to send a powerful message and set a new standard for a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. The STEM disciplines cannot hope to close the gender gap if women in these fields are harassed, assaulted, or made to feel like they do not belong. Hopefully, the NIH’s efforts will make headway toward closing the STEM gender gap in the future.