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How Women Came to Dominate Neuroendocrinology

A scientific field founded by men is now mostly female.

When Kathleen Morrison stepped onto the stage to present her research on the effects of stress on the brains of mothers and infants,…By Nicole M. Baran

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 unfazed 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.

But Beach was also openly sexist and long refused to take female graduate students, famously declaring that he “would never have ovaries in the lab.”5 His attitude was emblematic of widespread discrimination and harassment which posed real challenges for women hoping to break into the field. According to Adkins-Regan, “a lot of the guys back then were sexual harassers and you either avoided them or left the business.” Additionally, many of the male professors sitting on university hiring committees believed it was a waste of money to invest in the careers of women. According to Leonore Tiefer, one the few female students Beach mentored late in his career, they expected that women would “quit, get married and have babies.”6 “If someone thought it was subtle, it wasn’t,” says Carter. In 1969, both Tiefer and Carter were both interested in applying for an NIH-funded postdoctoral position at Johns Hopkins University but were explicitly told that they wouldn’t hire women.7

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According to Adkins-Regan, “a lot of the guys back then were sexual harassers and you either avoided them or left the business.”

It is tempting to argue that behavioral neuroendocrinology went from a male-dominated field hostile to women to one instead dominated by women because the research is especially relevant to women’s lives. The focus of behavioral neuroendocrinology—and that of SBN and OSSD—lies at the intersection of hormones, genetics, the brain, and behavior. Researchers in these fields seek to understand the biological mechanisms underlying reproduction, parental care, development, social bonds, aggression, learning, metabolism, and stress. Although hormones influence men and women alike,8 these topics can sometimes have greater salience for women. Carter points out that women experience the physiological, cognitive, and emotional aspects of many of these life experiences with a different kind of intensity, perhaps giving women unique insight into the important questions scientists should be asking.

But the relevance of these topics to women’s lives may be more of a consequence of female influence on behavioral neuroendocrinology than a cause. The earliest research in hormones and behavior focused almost exclusively on mating behavior. However, it was in fact an early pioneering woman in the field, Josephine Ball, who was the first to show in the 1920s that hormones like testosterone and estrogens also affected cognition, including learning, spatial navigation, and memory.9 As more women began entering the field, the focus of research shifted to also include the mechanisms underlying more general aspects of reproduction besides mating, including parenting, social bonding, and development. Carter’s research, for example, led to our understanding of the centrality of the peptide hormone oxytocin (and related hormones) to the neural systems underlying social bonding. “I started studying oxytocin when I was given it during childbirth,” stated Carter. “Before that, nobody had thought about its impacts on the brain.”

Once enough women were in the field, it created a culture that was accepting of new female entrants. According to Adkins-Regan, behavioral neuroendocrinology and allied fields such as neuroscience, animal behavior, and comparative psychology, “started looking different from other fields of science pretty early on,” for this reason. “Women are attracted to fields where they would be let in and be treated as equal.” This observation will be relevant to another barrier that has yet to fall: race. Despite substantial progress in the inclusion of women in both OSSD and SBN, the two societies remain overwhelmingly white. The societies have made limited efforts to be more inclusive of scientists of color, LGBTQI+ scientists, and other underrepresented groups,10 but their success with including women points the way forward.

egalitarians: The psychologist and feminist Daniel Lehrman chose to study the ring dove, which shares the work of raising its young equally between male and female.Photograph by Yathin S Krishnappa / Wikicommons

Women, of course, have clearly played a major role in their own successes in the field. But that is only half the story: They were also helped by early feminist men like Daniel Lehrman. Lehrman made a major splash during his doctoral work when, in 1953, he published his critique of the work of the esteemed German ethologist Konrad Lorenz. Both Lehrman and his doctoral advisor at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, T.C. Schneirla, opposed Lorenz’ rigid view that most behaviors were instinctive, innate, and inherited. In contrast, their scientific work suggested that behaviors develop through complex and inextricable interactions between biology and environment, imperiling the very concept of innateness. Indeed, Lehrman was the first to demonstrate that social interactions between two individuals can change the hormones of both, along with their behaviors.

In some cases, the scientists are wading directly into current political fights.

There was an undeniable political subtext below the surface of this debate. Lehrman, while translating Lorenz’ writings from the original German, found articles Lorenz had written from the 1930s that provided pseudo-scientific support for the racist policies of Hitler’s Germany. Following the advice of a number of mentors, Lehrman removed a direct discussion of Lorenz’ Nazi past from the final version of his critique published in The Quarterly Review of Biology,11 but the issue continued to simmer. Lehrman and Schneirla, who were both of Jewish descent and politically leftist, understood that scientific beliefs about genetic determinism were often used to justify racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice. And according to another one of Schneirla’s students, the comparative psychologist and feminist activist Ethel Tobach, both men were more than willing in private company to relate these matters of science to the political issues of the day.12

Lehrman also understood how his own research from his own field of hormones and behavior reduced reproductive behavior to instinct, potentially providing scientific justification for tying women to their role as mothers and caregivers. So it was, perhaps, not a coincidence that Lehrman focused his own research on the reproductive behavior of ring doves—a much more egalitarian species than the rodents Beach studied. Like many birds, ring doves form monogamous pairs and the male and female participate equally in the care of the young. From 1961 until his untimely death in 1972, Lehrman was married to the feminist social psychologist, author, and activist, Dorothy Dinnerstein, whose work criticized traditional gender roles.

It was with this background that Lehrman became both a profoundly influential researcher in behavioral neuroendocrinology and an early feminist. Lehrman recruited women scientists to residencies and faculty positions at the prestigious Institute of Animal Behavior he founded at Rutgers University-Newark and, importantly, fought for them to be paid equally for their work. One important recruit was Mei-Fang Cheng, who carried on Lehrman’s work on the ring dove at Rutgers after his death. Cheng discovered, for example, that the sound of a female dove’s own coo stimulates the growth of her ovaries and the release of hormones.

Lehrman also mentored and advocated for a substantial number of women scientists very early on, including Judith Stern, Celia Moore, Rae Silver, and Alison Fleming. These women would go on to profoundly shape our knowledge of the biological basis of maternal behaviors and social relationships. Silver, now a professor of natural and physical sciences at Barnard College, professor of psychology at Columbia University, and the current president of SBN, explains that “Danny was committed to supporting the careers of women in the exact same way that men were supported. It was not a trivial thing to do at that time.” Title IX, the federal civil rights law that made discrimination on the basis of sex illegal in higher education, though absent for most of Lehrman’s career, was signed into law just two months before he died.

Even Beach eventually, and begrudgingly, began to accept female students. But most did not go on to pursue careers in academia.* The only one who did, Tiefer, become a tenured professor in physiological psychology at Colorado State University before later renouncing her position, her dissertation, and all of her previous publications. At Colorado State she was exposed to feminist literature that sharply contrasted with the reductive view of “sex as mating behavior” she was socialized into during her doctoral training in Beach’s lab. “It all hit me very, very, very hard,” she explained to me. “I looked at the textbooks I was using and the lectures I was giving… they were completely disconnected from the real lives of women in the real world. And I thought, ‘Oh my g*d, I’ve been had.’” She now works as a sex therapist and activist challenging the over-medicalization of sex, and remains skeptical that human sexual behavior is being usefully examined by behavioral neuroendocrinology.

It may have taken several decades and a few generations of both female and male scientists, but the alignment of the personal, political, and scientific in behavioral neuroendocrinology may finally be starting to happen. In the last few years, the SBN, OSSD, and their members have been increasingly engaging in activism. Both SBN and OSSD were among the scientific societies fighting for the 2015 policy change at the National Institutes of Health13 requiring researchers to analyze the effect of biological sex in biomedicine, a policy which will improve health outcomes for women. Underrepresentation of females in animal models of disease has led to worse results, more side effects, and issues with dosages for women compared to men when new drugs are then tested in clinical trials.14 Members of SBN and OSSD are also fighting for greater representation of women in science, too. A working group of 45 mothers-in-science led by Rebecca Calisi-Rodríguez, an assistant professor at University of California, Davis, who studies reproduction and parental care in birds, is calling for changes in the culture of scientific conferences15 to ensure that scientists who, like Morrison, are also pregnant, breastfeeding, or parents of young children can fully participate.

In some cases, the scientists are wading directly into current political fights. The 2018 OSSD meeting featured an all-female panel of experts on the biology of sex differences discussing the problems with the now-infamous Google memo.16 Furthermore, at the recent Parental Brain conference, a satellite meeting of the 2018 joint meeting of SBN and the International Congress of Neuroendocrinology in Toronto, several researchers who study the effects of mother-offspring separation on the brain directly addressed the current administration’s child separation policy for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, ending their presentations with the hashtag #FamiliesBelongTogether.

Individual researchers like Sari van Anders of Queen’s College are taking this activism a step further into the design of her research itself. van Anders’ studies how social interactions modulate hormones, and investigates the idea that culture, including socially constructed beliefs about gender and sexuality, can influence hormones. Her work embodies Lehrman’s idea that behaviors are a function of complex interactions between biology and environment. Ironically, she was the 2014 recipient of the Frank A. Beach Young Investigator Award—named after the man who thought women didn’t belong in the field.


Nicole M. Baran is an NIH NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow in neuroscience at Georgia Institute of Technology.

* Tiefer’s roommate in graduate school, Joyce Dudney Fleming, was the editor in chief for Playgirl magazine in 1977.


References

1. Catalyst “Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)” (2018).

2. Sheltzer, J.M., Smith, J.C. Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, 10107–10112 (2014).

3. Dewsbury, D.A. The conference on reproductive behavior: a history. Hormones and Behavior 43, 465–473 (2003).

4. Dewsbury, D.A. Frank Ambrose Beach 1911–1988: A Biographical Memoir National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. (1998).

5. Sachs, B.D. In memoriam: Frank Ambrose Beach. Psychobiology 16, 312–314 (1988).

6. Tiefer, L. Interview by L. Granek [Video Recording]. Psychology’s Feminist Voices Oral History and Online Archive Project. Toronto, ON (2005, October 31).

7. Ibid

8. Epstein, R.H. Stop Calling Women Hormonal. The New York Times (2018).

9. Ball, J. The female sex cycle as a factor in learning in the rat. American Physiological Society 78, 533–536 (1926).

10. Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology “Scholarships to Enhance and Empower Diversity (SEED)” (2017).

11. Lehrman, D.S. A Critique of Konrad Lorenz’s Theory of Instinctive Behavior. The Quarterly Review of Biology 28, 337–363 (1953).

12. Tobach, E. …Personal is Political is Personal is Political… Journal of Social Issues 50, 221–244 (1994).

13. National Institutes of Health “Consideration of Sex as a Biological Variable in NIH-funded Research” (2015).

14. Liu, K.A., Dipietro Mager, N.A. Women’s involvement in clinical trials: historical perspective and future implications. Pharmacy Practice 14, 708 (2016).

15. Calisi, R.M., Working Group of Mothers in Science. Opinion: How to tackle the childcare–conference conundrum. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, 2845–2849 (2018).

16. Molteni, M., Rogers, A. The Actual Science of James Damore’s Google Memo. Wired (2017).

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