How Women Came to Dominate Neuroendocrinology

Nicole M. Baran in Nautilus:

When Kathleen Morrison stepped onto the stage to present her research on the effects of stress on the brains of mothers and infants, she was nearly seven and a half months pregnant. The convergence was not lost on Morrison, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, nor on her audience. If there ever was a group of scientists that would be both interested in her findings and unphased by her late-stage pregnancy, it was this one. Nearly 90 percent were women. It is uncommon for any field of science to be dominated by women. In 2015, women received only 34.4 percent of all STEM degrees.1 Even though women now earn more than half of PhDs in biology-related disciplines, only 36 percent of assistant professors and 18 percent of full professors in biology-related fields are women.2 Yet, 70 percent of the speakers at this year’s meeting of the Organization for the Study of Sex Differences (OSSD), where Morrison spoke, were women. Women make up 67 percent of the regular members and 81 percent of trainee members of OSSD, which was founded by the Society for Women’s Health Research. Similarly, 68 percent of the speakers at the annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology (SBN) in 2017 were women. In the field of behavioral neuroendocrinology, 58 percent of professors and 62 percent of student trainees are women. The leadership of both societies also skews female, and the current and recent past presidents of both societies are women.

It wasn’t always this way. As Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, a professor emerita at Cornell University and the recent past president of the SBN puts it: “The whole field was founded by guys!” “It was not a women’s field in the beginning,” agrees C. Sue Carter, director of the Kinsey Institute and professor of biology at Indiana University.

The field of behavioral neuroendocrinology grew out of what were known as the “West Coast Sex Meetings,”3 invitation-only gatherings of mostly male researchers that began in 1965. Among the meeting’s first organizers was Frank A. Beach.4 Beach, who studied the hormonal basis of sexual behavior in mammals, is considered to be the principal founder of the field of hormones and behavior. His ideas were profoundly influential and his gregarious personality (and occasionally off-color sense of humor) left an unmistakable imprint on the field. He was widely regarded as being an excellent graduate student mentor and his trainees were an important part of his legacy.

More here.