Sex and Age Discrimination Could be Impeding Scientific Research for Conditions Like Cushing Syndrome

NICHD

The NICHD is the The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is the center for infant health, child health, obstetrics, and gynecology. As such, one would think it would be teeming with women.

Of all of the labs in the Division of Intramural Research (DIR), 23% are run by women. In 2011, this percentage was 27. In other comparable research hospitals, women run between 30 and 47% of all labs.

Let’s put things in perspective. Since the year 2008, over half of all Biology PhD graduates have been female. About half of all postdocs are also female. But for the DIR, in 2020, only 29% of all tenure-track scientists are female. The NIH as a whole does better with 45% female representation. However, of tenure track scientists, only 24% are women. Partly, these figures are a result of time. Scientists normally conduct research for decades meaning there aren’t frequently new hires. Change will come, but it will come slowly.

However, unfortunately, part of these numbers may also be due to discrimination in hiring, in placement, and in funding.

In 2012, a blue-ribbon panel was formed and reported that the DIR had an issue related to the representation of both women as well as minorities and that the amendment of such issue should be a priority.

Stratakis

Constantine Stratakis was hired by the NIH in 1996. In 2009 he became Acting Scientific Director. In 2011, he took over the position permanently. This means he decided all budgets, salaries, hiring, firing, direction of research, and many other factors.

From the time he took up the position until March of this year, he reduced employee numbers from 84 to 57. This was predominately due to hiring controls implemented by President Trump and other financial pressures. Most of his reductions were aging scientists. However, their were also discrepancies by sex. The number of females running labs were dropped by 43% whereas the number of men were only dropped by 28%.

From 2013-2020 he hired 8 new tenure-track positions. 2 of these hires were female.

He also states that he hired 3 new female gynecologists, that women are 9 out of 10 clinical investigators, and 8 of 14 board members. He created Associate Scientific Directors in 2015 after complaints of male domination on the managerial staff, making 4 of the Associates male and 4 of them female. However, not everyone is happy with his actions.

Complaints

Female scientists have submitted 8 formal EEO complaints against Stratakis between the years of 2013 and 2019. All alleged sex discrimination, age discrimination, or both.

  • 3 have been settled
  • 1 lost a lawsuit on appeal
  • 1 quit the institute and dropped the complaint
  • 1 was dismissed
  • 2 are ongoing

To put this in perspective, from the years of 2015 to 2019 there were an average of 36 complaints in the NIH. That means that the complaints against Stratakis from the years 2013 to 2019 were as many as expected for NICHD as a whole. NICHD has around 600 full time employees. But all of these complaints were against one.

Support

There are individuals who support Stratakis. Some of these are women. They contend that-

  • There were structural obstacles to increasing the number of women hires
  • He eliminated only individuals who were not productive, regardless of gender
  • Women blamed him for their own failings

Stratakis will be leaving the department in June, moving to the Research Institute of McGill University. Diana Bianchi, who became the Institute’s first female permanent director in 2016, and served as Stratakis’s boss, retained Stratakis after a performance review in 2018, but she does recognize the problem. She says that change is slow, but that the Institute “wants to ensure the best and the brightest and the most capable researchers and doctors are addressing child health. Which means you can’t exclude women.”

Cushing Syndrome

Lynnette Nieman a scientist who specializes in Cushing syndrome. This disease is a condition where the body creates too much cortisol, the stress hormone. Stratakis slowly downsized her research team. She started with 7 in the year 2011. Each year that dwindled, leaving her with just one person in 2014. Additionally, her budget was reduced from 118,000 dollars to just 20,000. Nieman submitted a formal EEO complaint saying that these reductions were due to her gender.

Stratakis and Nieman have “clashed” on Cushing syndrome for years. They both study the illness and Nieman has previously reprimanded Stratakis (in 1999) for not properly protecting human subjects.    

Who is right in any of these cases? We won’t know. However, what we do know is that moving forward we should be cognizant of the possibility of sex and age discrimination in the healthcare profession. The numbers of female students to female employees on its own indicates that there is an issue. The proper advancement of health research depends on bringing in the greatest person for the job. To ensure this duty is met, everyone’s skills must be evaluated individually and equally.

You can read more about this issue here.

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