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Women scientists at famed oceanography institute have half the lab space of men

Women constitute 26% of the scientists at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), but only hold 17% of the space, according to an unprecedented report released last week.

SIO’s 56 women scientists have on average half as much research space and one-third the storage space of their 157 male counterparts, according to the 95-page report by a task force of SIO faculty and staff and UCSD officials. The 16 labs defined as “very large” all belong to men. Women also have less office space. And of 32 coveted storage containers in service yards on site—as opposed to at less convenient remote locations—31 are assigned to men.

The authors said the differences could not be “explained away” by funding, years at SIO, discipline, or research group size. “Our analysis points to the existence of widespread, institution-wide cultural barriers to gender equity within Scripps,” they concluded.

The report was commissioned in May 2022 by the university chancellor, executive vice chancellor, and SIO director after SIO faculty raised concerns. Its findings are likely to resonate in other institutions. American Geophysical Union president Lisa Graumlich, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, says that at major research universities she has visited nationwide, faculty from marginalized groups have told her they don’t have enough space for their research and that space allocation policies lack accountability. She is “sadly not surprised” by the findings at SIO, she says.

The storied 120-year-old research center for ocean, earth, and atmospheric science, perched on bluffs above the Pacific Ocean, appears to be the first scientific institution to have conducted and released such an exhaustive statistical analysis of space allocation by gender. But its findings echo those of an investigation nearly 30 years ago led by Nancy Hopkins, now a biologist emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In the early 1990s, under cover of dark, Hopkins measured every lab in the biology building there before leading a groundbreaking 1999 report on systematic discrimination against MIT faculty women. Hopkins calls the new results “stunning. … I looked at this thing and I thought, ‘Oh my God, 30 years; I was doing this 30 years ago.’ It has been written about and talked about and it’s still happening.”

The 1999 MIT report concluded that women there lacked space relative to men. But the data behind that finding were kept confidential. A 2000 gender equity review by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found women scientists experienced a striking space deficit compared with their male peers as both advanced in their careers, but it did not examine possible confounders as the current study did.

When the authors of the new study corrected for variables such as funding, time at SIO, and discipline that might explain the stark differences in space assignments, they came up empty. As faculty gained more funding, space assignments for men grew at four times the rate that women’s did. And as the size of their research groups grew, men’s research space expanded at nearly double the rate of women’s. The gender gaps persisted across research disciplines, meaning the clustering of men in a field that needs more space—say, oceangoing research versus computational studies—could not explain the discrepancies. Nor did research space track with the length of time a scientist had been at the institution, making it unlikely that some fraction of the space differentials could be explained by men on average having been at SIO longer.

The task force also illuminated dramatic differences in perceptions between men and women among 77 active faculty who responded to an anonymous survey. Asked whether they had sufficient space for their work, 42% of women said no, versus 6% of men. Only 10% of women found space assignments to be transparent versus 28% of men.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, released its space allocation report on 17 January.Scripps Institution of Oceanography/University of California, San Diego

One contributor to the lopsided space allocations is a practice called “inheritance,” the authors write. SIO policy requires that space be returned to the institution for reallocation when a faculty member dies or retires, but the policy is often ignored when a departing principal investigator simply assigns their space to an heir—a practice that has disproportionately benefited men, especially those with the largest labs.

Also contributing are emeritus faculty, 86% of them men, who hold nearly one-quarter of all space at SIO. Their capacious assignments are “difficult to comprehend,” says Stefanie Lutz, an environmental hydrologist at Utrecht University who was a lead author on a 2019 global survey on the impacts of gender discrimination in earth and space sciences.

The new report, which UCSD posted on its website, “is exceptional in how thoroughly it was done—but also because [the UCSD administration] publicized it afterward. They could have just put it into a hole,” says Jane Willenbring, a geologist at Stanford University who was an associate professor at SIO from 2016 to 2020.

UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla wrote in a cover letter: “These findings do not reflect the values of our university.” Khosla said he had directed SIO Director Margaret Leinen, who has been in the job 10 years, to chair a “Change Management” committee implementing the report’s many corrective recommendations that will begin reporting to him monthly. The recommendations include immediately identifying and reassigning available and underused space and “addressing the space assignments” of retired faculty to better serve those who aren’t retired.

“[It’s] gonna get fixed,” says Victor Ferreira, a psychologist who is UCSD’s associate vice chancellor for faculty diversity, equity, and inclusion and headed the task force that authored the report. “Everything I have seen including the fact that the public can download this report suggests that the university doesn’t want to whitewash this problem.”

It will take concerted corrective action to convince the skeptical. “Nancy Hopkins did all of this work and shone this light on how different it can be to be a woman in science than to be a man in science. And we have just learned nothing from that,” Willenbring says. “I was assuming ever since the MIT report that people—probably above my pay grade, but someone was looking out for this.”

Other research institutions may soon receive similar wake-up calls. One woman, a junior geoscientist at a major university who asked not to be identified for fear of career repercussions, says that in 2020, with COVID-19 protocols dictating the precise amount of space required per person in the lab, “suddenly there were spreadsheets flying around … and blueprints of the department.” She soon generated a color-coded bar graph showing men at all career levels ahead of women in lab space per capita. “It just jumped out at you as, ‘Holy crap, this isn’t good.’”

“This is still an ongoing problem for everyone at every level,” adds a woman faculty member at SIO who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issues. “This is not just geoscience or Scripps. This is all of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math].”

Source: Science Mag