Society for Neuroscience Written Testimony
Joanne Berger-Sweeney and Michael Lehman
Co-chairs, Professional Development Committee
From its inception in 1969, the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) has been committed to promoting diversity within neuroscience – gender as well as racial/ethnic diversity. SfN’s mission statement speaks to “bringing together scientists of diverse backgrounds” and increasing “participation of scientists from diverse cultural, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds.” This commitment is further articulated in SfN’s Strategic Plan, which includes a Diversity Strategy that has as one of its guiding principles: “to increase diversity within SfN’s leadership and governance structures, its membership, and its professional development activities.”
Trends/data: While comprehensive data are not available regarding overall trends in the numbers of women of color within the field of neuroscience, information from SfN’s membership surveys, as well as surveys of neuroscience departments and programs, show women dropping out at every career transition point, and in particular, during the transition from postdoctoral fellow to tenure-track faculty member. Because underrepresented minorities (URMs) also drop out at every career transition point, the situation for women of color is no doubt worse and is not unique to neuroscience.
At the same time, data from the Society’s Neuroscience Scholars Program (NSP), a highly competitive program for underrepresented trainees in neuroscience, show that there has been a steadily increasing majority of women among both applicants and selected participants. Between 2004 and 2011, the percent of NSP Scholar applicants that were female went from 46% to 63%, and the percent selected as Scholars increased from 52% in 2004 to 67% in 2011. This suggests that women of color are entering the field of neuroscience as trainees in increasing numbers. If there are not increasing numbers of women of color entering tenure-track positions, then they are dropping out along the way (the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon). It would be interesting to determine if women of color are dropping out of neuroscience at the same (or different) rate as majority women.
SfN programs/initiatives: The Society’s Diversity Strategy is implemented through the Professional Development Committee (PDC), which includes subcommittees on Diversity in Neuroscience and Women in Neuroscience, both of which are concerned with fostering career development for women in general, and women of color in particular. Programs and activities SfN supports to enhance the participation of women of color and to advance their academic careers include the following:
• Representation within SfN’s governance/organizational leadership: SfN is dedicated to achieving diversity within its governance and leadership structure to reflect the gender and ethnic/racial diversity of the overall SfN membership. As part of the annual committee nomination cycle, a subcommittee of the PDC is charged with making recommendations to the Committee on Committees of qualified women and URMs for
service on SfN committees. As a result, women and URMs have been appointed increasingly to SfN committees, and prominent women of color have also served on SfN’s Council.
• Representation within SfN annual meeting programming: SfN is also committed to ensuring diversity within the scientific program of the annual meeting. The Program Committee encourages inclusion of diverse presenters in symposium and mini-symposium proposals and uses diversity as an important criterion in the selection process. In addition, the nano-symposium format introduced in 2009 helps promote presentations by younger members, including women and scientists of color.
• Mentoring: SfN has identified mentoring as a high-priority need among many of its member constituencies, including women of color. SfN offers an online mentor-matching program as well as mentoring events at the annual meeting and year-round resources. NeurOnLine, SfN’s online community for member-to-member networking, dialogue, and sharing of experiences, offers a virtual venue where mentoring on a range of career-related topics and issues occurs alongside scientific exchange.
• Plugging the “leaky pipeline”: SfN also supports several grant-funded programs aimed at helping URMs to advance through various career stages. The Neuroscience Scholars Program (funded by the NINDS) aims to increase the likelihood that the most promising URM neuroscience trainees successfully advance in their careers. The Program includes annual funds for career enrichment activities, mentoring and networking opportunities, support for SfN annual meeting attendance, and more. To date, nearly 600 have participated in the program and, since 1996, 55% of all Scholars have been women. Data from a survey and interviews of former Scholars document the significant impact the program has had on helping foster the careers of numerous URMs, many of them women.
o SfN is also implementing a pilot Grant Proposal Mentoring Program to help increase the success rate for URMs submitting proposals to NSF/NIH. Of the 20 beneficiaries of the two-year pilot program, which involves intensive coaching and mock review of proposals, half are women of color. We expect this program to target the important transition from postdoctoral fellow to tenure-track faculty member where the “pipeline” appears to be most leaky.
o SfN’s NSF-funded project, Department Chair Training to Increase Women in Neuroscience (IWiN), seeks to increase the number of women, including underrepresented minority women, among faculty in neuroscience. SfN has implemented five workshops that have provided participating department chairs and university leaders from 43 academic institutions with concrete strategies focusing on recruitment, advancement, and creating a favorable work climate for female faculty and faculty from diverse backgrounds in neuroscience and neuroscience-related departments and programs around the country. A major topic of the workshops was the prevalence of unconscious bias. The reviews by participants of these workshops suggest that they will have a significant impact on hiring and retention practices at numerous academic institutions.
Challenges or barriers to success experienced by women of color in the field of neuroscience are no different than in other areas of science. The dearth of strong role models and of a supportive community of people of similar background/color, effective mentoring, and unintended/implicit biases in faculty recruitment and promotion policies and practices are among
the key issues identified in numerous studies. Additional challenges include retention of dual-career couples and support for work-life balance in scientific careers – challenges SfN is also trying to address through its professional development programming. One of many approaches is to assist women scientists who are raising families with added technical and childcare support.
Lessons learned by SfN from the programs and initiatives listed above, including 30 years of the Neuroscience Scholars Program and early lessons from the IWiN Project, suggest the need to work at each career transition level with focused and targeted interventions. Support for programs (including more pilot programs), as well as the identification and dissemination of best practices from successful programs, are key to helping professional societies address directly the challenges and ultimately contribute to increasing representation and career satisfaction of women of color and retaining them in the scientific academic workforce. Furthermore, strategies to increase retention of women of color in the sciences will help increase the retention of everyone in science, thereby benefitting the broader scientific community and the overall scientific enterprise.