“Women do not passively escape the professional pipeline” in biomedical careers

A few years ago, women were admitted to medical school at higher rates than men, explained Janine Austin Clayton, MD, FARVO, National Institutes of Health (NIH) associate director for research on Women’s Health and Director of the Office of Women’s Health Research, at the 2022 NIH Vivian W. Pinn Symposium. Following this success, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the rapid hemorrhage of women from scientific and medical careers in the entire industry.

“My sincere hope is that we can turn the tables on women’s careers,” Clayton said. “I hope that by the end of 2022, we will have reversed the bleeding of women from scientific and medical careers and that we will have found a way to keep women healthy, happy and inspired to show the world what we are done.”

Clayton noted that in a post by Rotonya Carr on the impact of COVID-19 on women’s careers in academic science, engineering and medicine, she wrote that there is potentially a whole generation of young female researchers. whose career has been derailed by the pandemic. However, researchers have begun to investigate the potential causes of these disruptions for so many potentially promising professionals during the pandemic.

Clayton explained that an article titled “Pushing the Boundaries: A Qualitative Study of How STEM Women Cope with Disrupted Boundaries Between Work and Nonwork During the COVID-19 Pandemic” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology investigated some of these challenges faced by women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.

“In less than favorable environments, [women were found to] hide their non-professional roles. But in supportive environments, they’ve exposed them and even advocated for change, like more childcare support. This was more common, but not exclusively, among tenured women with greater job security,” Clayton said.

Additionally, some women adapted to the roles they had to sacrifice in light of the heightened demands of the pandemic, which may have required them to disengage from work or non-work demands when they perceived that all of their demands role could not be managed. This has caused some to switch roles, experience psychological role withdrawal, or even decide to step out of a behavioral role, Clayton explained.

“As we know, it will take systemic change to address these issues,” Clayton said. “These authors summarized their results, [which] discovered a new reason for women to reveal unprofessional information in the workplace: they actively subverted ideal worker standards by revealing their inability to adhere to them, potentially confirming harmful stereotypes that women are unfit to work in STEM. »

Clayton explained that this subversive behavior was particularly striking among STEM women, as they are a marginalized group within their workplace. Moreover, these findings contradict existing theory that predicts that women, when adapting to workplace norms, minimize their non-professional identities or adopt positive differentiation strategies in order to meet the demands of their social environment.

Clayton noted that in an article published in Atlantic discussing the departure of large numbers of health care workers from the field, author Ed Yang explained how health care workers not only faced the most grueling working conditions of their careers, but their hospitals were also reducing their wages, cutting their benefits, reversing raises, forcing staff to work longer hours, denying paid time off or reducing hours, failing to provide adequate personal protective equipment, and downplaying the severity of their experiences. To top it off, these same hospitals were offering mundane wellness tips for managing these challenges during the pandemic, like keeping gratitude journals to better manage their stress and wellbeing.

Moreover, Yang noted in the article that these measures taken by hospitals were particularly experienced by nurses. Since the large number of nurses working in hospitals are women, these actions by the hospital administration directed against the nurses were not accidental – they were sexist, according to Yang.

“Women in the biomedical workforce in the hospital system are really canaries in the coal mine in terms of what they’re up against,” Clayton said. “One in 5 healthcare workers have left the workforce, and they are showing us, through their exodus, that not only is their environment toxic, but it is toxic because of structural toxicity.”

Additionally, although the large number of nurses working on the frontlines of the pandemic in hospitals are women, 82% of hospital CEOs are men.

“Think about what might have motivated [these] hospital administrators in the system, besides the obvious need to meet the incredible patient demand,” Clayton said before pausing and circling the statistic showing that 82% of hospital CEOs were male on his split-screen during his lecture, “it might have something to do with it.”

Turning to a discussion of women’s career paths in STEM, Clayton noted that a contemporary view of career paths is not best grasped as a pipeline, which has only one entry point. With that metaphor, if you miss that entry point, you could be locked out of the career pipeline forever, Clayton explained.

“Women aren’t passively slipping out of the pipeline, and the pipeline doesn’t really reflect the reality of a modern STEM career anymore,” Clayton said. “Rather, a braided river is the new metaphor for a career path, where you can see holistic mentorship and support under an inclusive STEM workforce supporting this braided river that has many paths emerging and diverging. , [with] islands within the ecosystem that are connected in various ways. Fostering a system in which many paths can meet and diverge forces us to see scientific knowledge and training as part of a new ecosystem rather than a solitary path. A new ecosystem is going to require systemic change, of course.


Clayton JA. Impact of COVID-19 on women’s careers. NIH Symposium Vivian W. Pinn. May 12, 2022. Accessed June 10, 2022. https://videocast.nih.gov/watch=45120

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