Where are the BRAINI women?

Like many other scientific fields, neuroscience has an obvious gender gap. There are too few women. This isn’t new, and overall representation of women in science is improving. But several events over the last few weeks reminded me how serious the problem still is.

It started with a personal experience. I was asked to do an interview for a Nature podcast about the new BRAIN Initiative. I did the interview and then eagerly waited for the podcast to come out. I was excited to hear the different perspectives.  The podcast posted at the end of April. (You can find it here; the BRAINI discussion starts at 18:54.) The first person interviewed was Colin Blakemore, a neurobiologist at the University of London. The next to comment was Bill Newsome, a neurobiologist at Stanford and co-chair of the BRAINI working group. Finally, they interviewed Donald Stein, a neuroscientist from Emory. As the piece came to an end, I realized none of my interview had been included. At first, I was disappointed. But then I realized there was a much bigger issue at hand: not a single woman (besides the interviewer) was included in the final podcast.

Now, let me be clear: I do not think my interview was excluded because I am a woman. Maybe the editors felt they did not get the sound bites they wanted from my responses. (It was my first recorded audio interview, and I’ll admit I was nervous and could do with more practice.) However, there are many other women neuroscientists who are experienced in this type of interview and could have given their perspectives on the project. How about Cori Bargmann, BRAINI working group co-chair? Or, Eve Marder, also a member of the BRAINI working group? I don’t know who was originally interviewed but didn’t make the final editing cut. I also don’t know if some women neuroscientists declined to be interviewed. But I find it hard to believe Nature couldn’t find a single qualified woman with a single good sound bite to include.

Of course, Nature isn’t the only culprit here. A few days later, a Scientific American article came out interviewing 3 neuroscientists about their thoughts on BRAINI. The interviewees: Rafael Yuste, Partha Mitra, and Douglas Fields – all men. Clearly, all of these neuroscientists, just as those in the Nature podcast, are highly qualified to weigh in on BRAINI. But again, why weren’t any women interviewed? Articles in other media outlets have also interviewed or quoted exclusively men. For example, this New York Times piece (written before the official White House announcement when the project was known as the Brain Activity Map, or BAM) interviewed or quoted 6 people – all of them men. This NPR piece, featured on the radio program All Things Considered, interviewed 3 people – all men. This KQED radio show had 5 guests – all men. I could go on, but you get the idea…

Some of this may be self-selection. Perhaps women are agreeing less often to interviews. Interestingly, this piece mentions, “ScienceInsider has not been able to reach [Cori] Bargmann for comment since she was named co-chair to the working group.” But I don’t think this is the only explanation for lack of female representation in the media.

What about the composition of the BRAINI working group? The full roster of what has been referred to as a ‘Dream Team’ is available on NIH’s website (right column). The group includes 15 members, only 2 (13%) of which are women. Admittedly, a woman (Cori Bargmann) has been given a leading role as co-chair. But shouldn’t the overall representation of women in the group be higher?

The final straw that inspired me to write this post came 2 days ago. NSF and the Kavli Foundation arranged a meeting of the minds, inviting over 100 neuroscientists, physicists, and mathematicians to begin the process of brainstorming BRAINI’s goals. I watched the live stream of some of the sessions, and as the discussions progressed, one thing became painfully obvious: there was a conspicuous gender imbalance. I wasn’t the only one to notice:


There were women present, but relatively few. And by my estimate, around 80% of the comments in the discussion were by male scientists. Since it was difficult to judge from the live feed alone how many women versus men were present, I turned to the official attendee list. Of the first 111 faculty listed (not including attendees listed under rapporteurs, media, journals, etc.), only 17 (15%) were women. Of course, I have no way of knowing how many women were originally invited and declined, but I doubt it would make up for that dismal number.

So, what is going on? Is it just that we don’t have enough women in neuroscience? That’s certainly true. A recent survey of The Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs (ANDP) shows there is a huge ‘leak’ in the academic pipeline. While 52% of neuroscience predoctoral trainees are women, the number drops to 44% of postdoctoral trainees/non-tenure track faculty and falls even further to 26% of tenure-track faculty. It’s not that the field of neuroscience fails to attract intelligent and capable women; it’s that the field, like many other STEM fields, fails to retain them. 

Putting aside for the moment the important discussion of why retention of women in STEM is so poor (a topic for another post), the number of female tenure-track faculty still does not fully justify the low representation seen in media discussions of BRAINI or in forums like the NSF/Kavli BRAINI meeting. Zero female interviewees is inexcusable when ~26% of neuroscience faculty are women. 13-15% female representation in working groups and conferences is still about half of what it could be given the percentage of women in the field.

And gender isn’t the only demographic in which BRAINI could stand to be more inclusive. Let’s talk about age. And by that I don’t necessarily mean physiological age (though it is related), but rather academic age. Many of the professors being interviewed in the media and many of those attending the NSF/Kavli meeting obtained their PhDs 20, 30, 40+ years ago. There is very little representation so far of investigators that qualify as early-stage (10 years or less since obtaining their PhD). While senior-level scientists are a necessity –  they are highly qualified, have the many benefits of experience, and may have a more panoramic view of the field – they can’t be the only voices. Early-stage investigators bring new perspectives, may be less attached to long-standing dogmas, and ultimately will be the future of the field. They have to be involved in the discussions.

In one of the brainstorming sessions at the meeting, Terry Sejnowski mentioned the need to be inclusive and to bring to the discussion those who were not at the meeting. I agree. Let’s start by bringing in more women and early-stage investigators. If BRAINI is to be successful, diverse perspectives and approaches will be key.


5 thoughts on “Where are the BRAINI women?

Add yours

  1. I am a PhD in CS and applied two summer schools in neuroscience. One was in Woods Hole and the other one in Berkeley (neuroinformatics). Rejected both times. I can’t tell sure if it was because of gender, age or that they prefer mathematicians to computer scientists. Probably I will never know, because they will never tell me the truth, right? I got the “unfortunately other candidates more of what we were looking for” cliche….

  2. Half of the brains on earth are in women’s skulls. So give them a chance to study it as well. This is not PENISI project after all

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