Tag Archives: basic science

Women and minorities in Biology

We give a lot of workshops and presentations. Several years ago, a scientific colleague expressed to us his skepticism that there was a large percentage of the participants that were women. Of course, it we knew that something like 50% of Ph.D. candidates were women, but the percentage of those who a) went on to post-grad research and b) were interested in bioinformatics and genomics was in questions perhaps.

So we’ve been counting ever since to put numbers to our contention :). The percentage of participants at our genomics resources workshops and presentations who were female has consistently been around or over 50%. There are several ways to explain that, but the simplest? 50% of new post-grad scientists are women.

A new report released (warning: pdf file) by the Council of Graduate Schools today says that 50.9% of doctorates awarded in the biological and agricultural sciences in 2008-9 were to women (interestingly, 60% of masters went to women in the same year). In engineering, it’s still male-dominated at 78.4% male, but that number is falling also.

There is some other interesting data in the report. The number of doctorates (all disciplines) awarded has risen every year, but the annual rise has been greater for women (5.5%) than men (2.1%). Additionally, the total graduate enrollment of racial/ethnic minorities has risen at a much faster pace than the racial majority (in biological sciences: a 7.4-8.4% annual increase from 1999-2009 for Asian, Latino, African-American, American Indian students, compared to a 1.7% annual increase for white students). I couldn’t find the total percentage for biological sciences (it’s a big report), but the total percentage of graduate students in all disciplines is 13.6% for African Americans (All these reported are for US citizens and permanent residents).

Why is this a good thing?

Other than diversity for diversity’s sake (and I believe there is definitely a strength in diverse backgrounds, perceptions and opinions tackling a problem), it’s also a matter of the efficient use of resources, to put it very coldly.

Say you need 100 excellent minds to work on a problem. You have a population of 1000 to choose from, but you limit that choice to 50% by some random criteria that has nothing to do excellence of mind :). You will find 100 excellent minds, but not the 100 most excellent minds. If you open it to the entire population, that top 100 excellent minds will be the best possible.

So, the increasing percentages of women and minorities in graduate work and post-graduate research only bodes well for the quality of the nation’s science. We are beginning to pull from the entire pool, not just less than half of it.

I would like to see what those percentages are in genomics and bioinformatics, but alas, those numbers are not in this report.

hattip: GenomeWeb Daily Scan