As the U.S. continues to fall behind countries such as China and India in producing high-level scientists, one immediate and obvious solution would be to take advantage of the many women who have obtained doctoral degrees in science but have been passed over in their attempts to rise to the position of tenured professor, according to an editorial in DNA and Cell Biology.

Co-authors Jo Handelsman, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Editor-in-Chief of DNA and Cell Biology, and President of the Rosalind Franklin Society, and Robert Birgeneau, PhD, Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, contend that “a few significant changes in the academic system” in the U.S. could move more accomplished women scientists into positions of leadership, helping to balance the current gender inequality in the hierarchy of academia and to fortify the country’s overall scientific leadership.

Building on the findings of a National Academy report entitled “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” which attributes the lack of women in academic leadership positions to a combination of “unconscious biases” and “archaic university structures,” Handelsman and Birgeneau support the Academy’s recommendation for “educating the academic community about the insidious role of unconscious bias in decision-making.”

Furthermore, they point to the antiquated tenure system, in which women are often held back from advancing to tenured professorships because of child-bearing and family responsibilities, as being in need of reform. Relatively simple and straightforward changes such as tenure clock extensions, quality childcare, or job-sharing could enable an existing pool of talented and capable women scientists to move into the upper echelons of academia and scientific research and boost America’s competitiveness in research output across a variety of scientific and engineering disciplines.

Article: Women Advancing Science, DNA and Cell Biology. 2007, 26(11): 763-764. doi:10.1089/dna.2007.1503.