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Peak Gender Gap: Women at the Top of Science Agencies


This story didn’t get off to a very good start. It turns out, it’s not easy to dig out online who’s been who at the peak of major science agencies. And the only studies I could find looked at gender and research grants, not leadership.

So how are women faring in reaching the peak positions of powerful science agencies? How far have we come from the early days of intentional vertical segregation of women in science?

In relation to gender equality, vertical segregation refers to the concentration of women and men in different grades, levels of responsibility or positions. It indicates the under- (or over-) representation of women and men workers in occupations or sectors at the top of an ordering based on ‘desirable’ attributes (income, prestige, job stability, etc.), independent of the sector of activity. (EIGE)

Even heavy female representation in a field does not necessarily lead to equal opportunity going up a hierarchy. It even happens in female-dominated professions. Consider the repercussions, for example, of the pay gap for women in nursing and school teaching in the US.

The number of peak positions in science agencies is small, and tenure in particularly powerful posts – and the positions that decide them – can be long as well. Glacial pace towards gender equality at the peak is predictable. But there should be movement.

The number of women scientists and the consciousness of the importance of inclusiveness grew from the 1970s – supported by legislation that affected public science agencies in the US, for example. And by the 1990s, there was a growing wave of senior women. So it’s also reasonable to expect historical all-white-male lineups to have been mostly broken by this century. Well… you would think.



I had only meant, at first, to look for a woman to write a Wikipedia article about. That turned into trying to get a handle on how it’s going overall by hunting through some organizations and countries I know quite well. [Update, 16 November: Kausik Datta has added an analysis for India below.]

I’ll start with some good news. If you wanted to gather an all-female group of current heads of major science agencies or organizations, you could include this star studded lineup:



In alphabetical order (from left to right above):

  • Diana Bianchi, medical geneticist and neonatologist, director of the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD, NIH).
  • France Córdova, astrophysicist, director of the US National Science Foundation (NSF).
  • Glenda Gray, physician/HIV researcher, president of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC).
  • Margaret Hamburg, neuroscientist, president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
  • Anne Kelso, immunologist, chief executive officer of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
  • Maria Leptin, biologist, director of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO).
  • Marcia McNutt, geophysicist, president of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
  • Erin O’Shea, molecular/cellular biologist, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
  • Sue Thomas, microbiologist, chief executive of the Australian Research Council (ARC).
  • Melanie Welham, biochemist, interim chief executive officer of the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). (I couldn’t find a non-copyright photo of her.)

For perspective, Margaret Hamburg’s mother, Beatrix McCleary Hamburg, was one of the first 3 African-American students Vassar allowed to enroll in 1944 – and then she was the first African-American woman to attend and graduate from Yale School of Medicine (in 1948). Vassar was established as a women’s college in 1861, and white women could attend Yale to study medicine from 1916. Yale was established in 1701.

The bad news is, by and large, the gender gap at the peak of major funding agencies is still major. Here’s what the current lineup at an exception looks like: the ARC. The only major funding agencies I found with women of color in peak positions in their history were the NIH and the NSF.

Out of the agencies I looked for, most have never had a woman heading them, or all the heads I could find online were men. Here are a few:

  • Academy of Sciences Leopoldina (Germany) – all male presidents (1652 – )
  • The Royal Society (UK) – all male presidents (1662 – )
  • Medical Research Council (UK) – all male chairs and executive officers (1914 – )
  • DFG, the German Research Foundation – all male presidents (1929 – )
  • National Cancer Institute (NCI) (US) – all male directors (1938 – )

The last, the NCI, is one of the Institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH was established in 1930. By 1990, there were 21 Institutes – and 10 of those had an annual budget of over a billion dollars in 2016 [PDF].

It was 44 years till a woman became an NIH Institute director – and 61 years till a woman became NIH director. Recently, though, close to a third of NIH’s peak positions have been held by women – either by permanent appointment, or deputies acting in the role. That puts the organization ahead of the curve.

That said, the NCI is not at all unusual: 12 of the 21 Institutes have never had a woman permanent director. There has only been one woman permanent director of the whole NIH – Bernadine Healy. Ruth Kirschstein was the first to direct an Institute – the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) in 1974.

Altogether, 19 women have been permanent directors, or acted in the role for at least a year. They are listed at the bottom of this post. That gave me the woman to learn and write about this week: Audrey S. Penn, the first African-American women to serve as a director of an NIH Institute. She had several other major firsts, too.

Penn was born in New York City in 1934, and became a neurologist. She studied muscle weakness in disease, especially myasthenia gravis. She was a professor at Columbia University, and president of the American Neurological Association in 1994. In 1995, Penn was recruited to the position of deputy director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). She was NINDS acting director twice: the first half of 1998, and then from 2001 to 2003.


Photo of Kirschstein, Penn and Maddox

Ruth Kirschstein (left), Audrey Penn, and Yvonne Maddox at a symposium to celebrate Dr Penn’s retirement from her senior executive post in 2007. (All 3 have served as Institute directors.)


There are so many impressive achievements to celebrate, and many more amazing women to learn about. Far too few agencies, though, are making their leadership history transparent, and that matters, for recognition of people’s achievements and for accountability. Agencies should be challenged on their track records with race and gender when necessary – the first step, is revealing them. A study comparing them would be good to see, too.

We already know one of the most striking things in this landscape, though: there are many, many firsts still to come.


[Update 2 December 2017] Wellcome Trust added the roster of their directors and chairs: thanks, Wellcome Trust!




Disclosure: Although my day job is at the NIH, this post is a personal view and had no organizational input. Many years ago, I participated and chaired committees at the NHMRC.


The 19 women who served as directors of an Institute or the NIH for a year or more, with links to their Wikipedia pages when they have them (as of 14 November 2017):

  1. Ruth Kirschstein (National Institute of General Medical Sciences – NIGMS, NIH)
  2. Doris Merritt (National Institute of Nursing Research – NINR)
  3. Ada Sue Hinshaw (NINR)
  4. Bernadine Healy (NIH)
  5. Patricia Grady (NINR)
  6. Audrey Penn (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke – NINDS)
  7. Barbara Alving (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute – NHLBI)
  8. Nora Volkow (National Institute on Drug Abuse – NIDA)
  9. Story Landis (NINDS)
  10. Elizabeth Nabel (NHLBI)
  11. Linda Birnbaum (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – NIEHS)
  12. Susan Shurin (NHLBI)
  13. Judith Greenberg (NIGMS)
  14. Martha Somerman (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research – NIDCR)
  15. Yvonne Maddox (National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities – NIMHD)
  16. Betsy Humphreys (National Library of Medicine – NLM)
  17. Catherine Spong (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development – NICHD)
  18. Patricia Flatley Brennan (NLM)
  19. Diana Bianchi (NICHD)


Photos in the “all-female” montage are from Wikimedia Commons for Diana BianchiFrance CórdovaGlenda Gray, Margaret Hamburg, Marcia McNutt, and Erin O’Shea. The photo of Anne Kelso is from the NHRMC website, the photo of Maria Leptin is from flickr, and the photo of Sue Thomas is from the ARC website.

The photo of Ruth Kirschstein, Audrey Penn, and Yvonne Maddox was taken at a symposium to honor Dr Penn on her retirement from being deputy director of NINDS, via Wikimedia Commons.

The cartoon portrait gallery is my own (CC BY-NC-ND license). (More cartoons at Statistically Funny and on Tumblr.)


* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


  1. Your post prompted me to go look for similar information from India, the country where I was born & trained up to my PhD. I tried to go through the history and organizational structure of the major governmental organizations that fund bioscience research in India.

    1. CSIR (Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, Ministry of Science and Technology) – 23 directors general since 1942, all men.

    2. DBT (Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology) – 5 Secretaries, DBT since 1986; one woman, Prof. Manju Sharma, an accomplished plant biotechnologist.

    3. ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research, Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare) – initially set up as Indian Research Fund Association (IRFA) in 1911, rechristened as ICMR in 1949; Dr. GV Satyavati who was appointed Director General of ICMR in 1994 was the first woman scientist to head any research agency in independent India; she held the post for 3 years. (For context, the tenures of male leaders in the DG position have lasted 3-9 years.) The current Director General is a woman pediatrician, Dr. Sowmya Swaminathan, since 2015.

    4. ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare) – established first in 1929, this is the apex body for research and education in agriculture, horticulture, fisheries and animal sciences – with all men in the organizational leadership structure.

    5. DST (Department of Science and Technology, Government of India) – All secretaries since 1972 have been men.

    Other related agencies which often provide general science and technology funding:
    1. Atomic Energy Research Board (AERB), Government of India – All male chairpersons since 1983.

    2. Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), set up in 1948 and engaged in radiation technology application research in agriculture, medicine, industry and basic sciences, has all men in the organizational structure.

    3. Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO, under the Ministry of Defence) – currently have 3 women Directors General heaving two technical and one corporate divisions, but these divisions report to upper echelons in the organizational management, who are all men.

    4. The well accomplished ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization, Department of Space) and the Space Commission – all men at the top positions.

    5. Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB, under the Department of Science and Technology) – established in 2008, headed by a male scientist.

    6. The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) – born in 1935, rechristened as INSA in 1970, it is a prestigious body of scientists invested in promotion of science. The Presidents have always been men; currently there are two women vice-presidents.

    All this information is available publicly. The list is most likely incomplete. I also left out premier research organizations whose funding comes via one or more of the above mechanisms, like the CSRI-CDRI (Central Drug Research Institute), the premier organization for pharmaceutical research in India.

    It appears that the glass ceiling stubbornly persists for women scientists in India. Whether, as a nation, India can better utilize its vast resource of exceptionally talented women science professionals — only time can tell.

  2. Thank you so much! That is depressing, but it’s also great to have leads for women who need more recognition. There is a Wikipedia article about Manju Sharma (but needs a photo), but not the others. More to do!

  3. You are right to feature Margaret Hamburg, now President-Elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and former head of the FDA. You might want to highlight also Susan Hockfield, now President of AAAS and President-Emerita of MIT, and Barbara Schaal, Chair of the Board of Driectors of AAAS, Plant biologist and Dean at Washington University, and former member of the White House PCAST. The three highest elected leaders of AAAS are women.

  4. Please don’t forget Dame Ann Dowling, first female and current President if the Royal Academy of Engineering, this is an influential academy in Great Britain in that it selects the winners of the Queen Elizabeth (also female) Prize for engineering, which hopes to become the Nobel equivalent in our field. Other notable women Prof Heidi Diggelman presided over the Swiss National Science Foundation. There have been female presidents of the the all hallowed Institutions of Civil (Jean Venables) and also more than one of the mechanical engineers. Women are becoming university leaders too in greater numbers, which is also positive for acting as role models to the younger generation (Louise Richardson at Oxford for example, Glynis Bracewell in Bath). Heidi Wunderli was the first female Rector at eth Zürich, only about 30 years after the first female professor had been elected… progress is happening albeit slowly.

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