The National Science Foundation just announced the winner of the 2014 Alan T. Waterman Award, the highest award it gives to a scientist or engineer under the age of 35. The winner is Feng Zhang, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute and Harvard. In addition to being a huge honor, the award comes with $1 million dollars of research funding. It’s a big deal. And, for that reason, I was concerned to see that, just like the previous 10 winners, this year’s winner was a man.
Now, I want to be clear: Feng Zhang is clearly a very impressive scientist, and is highly deserving of this award. So is each man who won the award in the previous decade. But when male scientists win an award 10 times in a row (in one year, two men won), I would suggest that argues that it’s worth examining the process for unintended biases.
Why this focus on the Waterman Award? Because, in my opinion, this is a good example of a common phenomenon that happens often in academia, including in ecology. It happens with society (another link) and university awards, faculty searches, invitations to speak at meetings, and in departmental seminar series – a committee of well-meaning people who are not trying to be exclusive end up selecting primarily men.* In each case, there’s a pool of people who might be deserving of the award (or position or seminar/talk slot); the concern is when the people chosen from that pool end up being a biased sample.
As I said, even in cases where each individual decision or outcome seems entirely justifiable, if there is a consistent pattern, the process as a whole needs to be examined. Let’s split the process into two halves to consider:
1. The nomination process. It is really, really common for people to initially think of men when asked to nominate people, either for awards or talks. This is part of why things like Anne’s List of women neuroscientists is valuable. People interested in increasing diversity of a seminar series, for example, could skim such a list to look for people to consider inviting. As far as I know, no such list exists for ecology and evolution, though I know that my Michigan colleague Gina Baucom has been doing some behind-the-scenes work to try to get one going.
For something like the Waterman Award, this is more challenging. I would guess that a lack of a diverse pool of nominees is probably a large part of the problem. Given how many of the winners have also won the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), one option would be to write to the departmental chairs of all PECASE winners to suggest they submit a nomination. The program contact for the Waterman Award, Mayra Montrose, already writes to PECASE winners to suggest that they ask to be nominated for the Waterman Award – they are clearly trying to increase the number of nominations (which is good!) I have no idea what percentage of PECASE recipients ask someone else to be nominate them, but I’m guessing that, given things like imposter syndrome, women and underrepresented minorities might be less likely to follow through on that suggestion. (This piece in The Atlantic also suggests this would be the case.) Asking the chairs directly might help overcome this. If you have other ideas for how to increase the diversity of the pool of nominees for this sort of award, please suggest them in the comments!
2. The selection process. Everyone has implicit biases, and this affects how we evaluate women and people of color. As the title of this Nature correspondence piece by Marlene Zuk and Gunilla Rosenqvist puts it, “Evaluation bias hits women who aren’t twice as good”. So, one key step is (after soliciting a diverse pool of nominees) to try to evaluate nominations in a way that reduces bias (e.g., by being aware of biases and by having a set of specific criteria – agreed upon prior to reviewing any of the nominations – on which nominees are evaluated). Another important step is to acknowledge that there is a history of implicit biases – letters written will tend to be shorter and less glowing (pdf link), grants tend to be harder to get, etc. (Here is a pdf from the University of Michigan STRIDE Committee on best practices related to faculty awards.)
For the Waterman Award, coming up with a single, specific set of criteria seems like it could be particularly challenging. The award goes to one person, but that person could be in any of a wide range of fields, so the awards committee presumably needs to find a way to compare a sociologist, an astronomer, a cell biologist, and an engineer. Each field will have differences in terms of productivity – I have no idea how to try to compare the publication records of a pure mathematician and a computer scientist, for example.
Another potential challenge with the Waterman Award is that, because it goes to people under the age of 35, it will be evaluating people on their productivity at an age right around where many women have children. (This article talks about the “baby penalty” faced by women in science.) Again, I don’t have good ideas for how deal with this for this sort of award (other than for the selection panel to keep it in mind), but hopefully others will.
Hopefully it is clear that I don’t think there is an easy solution to the male-bias in Waterman Award winners, and I am most definitely not saying that there is any intentional bias going on. But I am saying that having 11 consecutive male winners suggests that there might be biases, and that possible ways to improve the diversity of awardees should be considered. My goal here is to try to start a conversation. Moreover, my hope is that thinking about the biases that might influence this one particular award will hopefully lead us to also examine biases in society awards, hiring, and seminar/talk invitations, which affects most of our readers more directly.
Does the diversity of award winners matter? I think so. In the case of the Waterman Award, there is a lot of prestige (and money!) that come with having won it. For society awards, there usually isn’t much money, but there is prestige. Plus, for younger scientists just starting out, seeing pictures of winners (of the Waterman Award or a society award) and seeing that very few look like them sends the message that maybe they don’t belong. Women and people of color in the sciences often ask “Should I be here?” We want to make sure that our seminar series, our faculty, and our award winners send the message that they do.
If you have thoughts on how to deal with this problem – either for the Waterman Award in particular or for the more general problem – please share them in the comments!
*This pattern tends to be even more extreme for racial and ethnic minorities, of course.
Other posts on related topics:
1. Supporting other women in science (from Tenure, She Wrote, by scitrigrrl)
2. Creating a diverse speaking series (from Jabberwocky Ecology, by Morgan Ernest)
3. Best practices in faculty hiring (University of Oregon)