Monday, October 16, 2017

Science Awards for Women: A Sore Point  

I have written a lot over the years on NATURE's blog on Women in Science about major scientific awards and the very few women typically selected for them.  And in Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling and other places, I've written about one possible advantage women might have as scientists: they may select high risk-high reward projects that men have rejected.  

This week, National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced twelve people received Pioneer Awards, intended to recognize people who take on risky projects that pay off big.  Eleven were men, one was a women,  She was Kay The of MIT, whose work clarified the role of neuron plasticity in the amygdala in learning.  The men awarded included Feng Zhang, one of the scientists who has developed the ways to use CRISPR-Cas9 in editing of genes in human cells.  

The list implies I must have been wrong about women's attraction to risk with big rewards if the recipients were fairly selected.  In the previous three years, four, three, and five women were selected, so perhaps this was just an unlucky year for women's grants with high risk.  But somewhere along the line, as described in a semi-anonymous web posting, the process went from nomination to application.  I would argue that women find it a lot easier to gracefully agree to be recognized for risky but rewarding research than to put themselves forward has having done such research.  The imposter syndrome is well documented for women scientists, suggesting that women don't feel sure they've succeeded because of their own skills and intelligence, but feel it's been accidental and they might be found out as an imposter who really doesn't deserve her recognition.  

I recall not being willing to apply to Rockefeller Institute (now University) for graduate school because what they required was an essay basically extolling yourself and your scientific potential.  Not that I lacked confidence back then.  I seemed very confident but underneath, I cringed at the thought I might over-represent my own scientific acumen.  Somehow that never bothered some good friends (male) who applied there and were accepted.  

So it seems possible to me that the mechanism for selection of Pioneers now selects against women when it didn't so much in the past.  The Nobel Prizes (all male in science this year) are a different story!


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