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The Scientific Men's Club

I serve on the senior appointments and promotions committee of a medical school. Over the years, I've come to recognize something that is as disturbing as it is undeniable: as a group, male basic scientists sail through the committee effortlessly. Many work in fields so specialized that they have only ten colleagues in the entire world, half of whom are their mentors or one-time fellow graduate students. These are their "peers," and they readily provide laudatory letters of recommendation establishing that the applicant has attained "national and international recognition." In contrast, applications by clinical faculty and women provoke far more discussion.

I don't resent the ease with which basic science faculty are promoted; after all, I am sure that I also enjoyed the perks that come with this designation. Nonetheless, the system seems blatantly unfair. We rely on external referees for promoting basic scientists, who publish their work in national or international journals. By contrast, it is difficult to quantify how good clinical scientists are. Indeed, we struggle--more or less successfully, I think--even to define what a "scholarly" practicing physician is, because a clinician's reputation rests on local interactions that are often difficult to document.

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The issue of women faculty members, especially in basic sciences, is far more complex. I suspect that here the problem reflects fundamental differences between the way women and men approach science as a microcosm of life. Most of my fellow male faculty members are not muscle-bound, testosterone-driven types, but in their scientific careers, they display two types of typically male behavior.

The first is a compulsion to be the first to establish completely trivial facts about science. As I grow older, I'm no longer sure why this is so important, but the male members of our species seem to think that it is. Most young male faculty members have an obsessive need to work 20 hours a day, seven days a week to make sure that a (sometimes-illusory) competitor is beaten to the punch. Ten or 15 years from now, will anybody care? Most women in basic sciences seem to be uninterested from the outset in playing such games.

The second male behavior is a patricidal imperative that is perhaps the most shameful and atavistic of the primal impulses that still lurk in some archaic part of our brains. The idea that one must somehow supplant one's mentor, cast the previous generation out into the wilderness, and make oneself the leader of the pack seems to obsess men.

Women scientists seem to behave far more collegially. There is a certain senior (male) faculty member who is one of the kindest and most accomplished investigators at my institution. He is surrounded by and works with a group of young women he has mentored. Most are bright, creative, and productive in their own right, but they do not seek desperately to dissociate themselves from him, establish their own little fiefdoms elsewhere, and beat him at his own game.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, I can't help feeling that working together as a group is an innately feminine tendency. More importantly, I can't help believing that this way of operating is ultimately far more scientifically productive than the traditional male drive to establish one's own "identity" and "independence."

Unfortunately, one of the unwritten laws of academia--unquestioned by the committee on which I serve--is that a candidate who does not seek and grasp the holy grail of "independence" is not qualified to be promoted. Almost every time a woman candidate comes up before the committee, her "independence" is questioned in a way that is irrelevant, if not insulting. Sadder still, the most stringent adherents to and enforcers of this male paradigm are the rare women that have "made it" in the male world to serve on the committee. "I made it," they seem to say, "so why can't she?"

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In most cases, the women are as smart as the men, if not smarter. But most have chosen to work either in a group with their mentors or with their husbands, who often work in the same fields. Although they generate as many of the ideas as their male colleagues do, it is the latter who go to meetings and present the group's research results. This seems to me to reflect women's all-too-common impulse to accommodate the unbridled male ego rather than any deficiency in their creativity or "independence."

There was surely a time when eschewing children and family was the only way that a woman could prove her commitment to science. In many places, that has begun to change. I hope that the time will come when there are enough women in science that a greater diversity of female role models is represented in bodies that decide about careers. This would encourage greater sympathy for and empathy with the different needs and impulses of women and men--and a deeper appreciation that the male paradigm is not the only valid one within which to live life and excel in science.