Do women take on too much lab work?

This week I had my Faculty ‘Annual’ Review. The main outcome was that I was falling behind in publications because I was spending too much time at the bench. This may sound paradoxical but it is pretty much guaranteed that the work that I’m doing at the bench right now; cloning a viral construct and packaging biomarker samples for my mentor (yeeeeah) are not likely to lead to a 2014 paper. Whereas I have a paper that is 80% written that just needs a few final experiments. However, I cannot get to that paper because this vector needs to cloned ASAP so that my mentor can present results to the funding agency in September.

The irony is that I didn’t need to be told that I was doing too much bench work. Many times I’ve gazed from the bench with envy at my mentor’s postdoc (who seems to only do experiments that generate direct data for papers) sitting at his desk leisurely putting together figures for a paper or catching up on the literature. Part of this is our different skill set. He has no molecular biology experience and only works with already established transgenic lines, so he doesn’t have to create resources. My projects are rather labor-intensive and amongst other things require the generation of new viral constructs and stereotaxic surgery to administer them.

The funny thing is, when I look around the surgery suite at others performing similar injections, the collection of murine surgeons is overwhelmingly female. On the whole, the men of our department seem to wangle it so that one or two (female) technicians perform the majority of their surgeries. This isn’t just limited to those of us on the lower rungs; I regularly see women with their own lab staff in the surgery suite, whereas the guys in this department seem to abandon bench work for good as soon as that first RO1 or even K award is granted.

Why is this? Are women control freaks? I will admit that yes, I can be. I was badly burnt during my PhD when I sent off a construct to generate a transgenic mouse to an outside company and they sent me back WT mice. The few weeks to figure out that no, the transgene was not present was nothing compared to the lag time waiting for the company to ‘generate’ and then actually generate the mice. So, I am now reluctant to send things out if they can be generated in house, unless they are in the hands of a trusted collaborator. Also, while here in Boston I had some difficulties with one tech who was not a native English speaker. Miscommunication, or having to type out simple but comprehensive instructions, often led me to think that it was just quicker to do it myself – something that I think most people have experienced for a whole host of reasons. Yet, the majority of the time I don’t have trouble trusting the people that I work with to complete the task successfully and most of the time I am more than happy to delegate. So, control freaks? Maybe some of us, under certain circumstances.

How about wangling our way out of bench work? (If we can convince our inner control freak!). Well, it is no secret that on the whole women can be crappy negotiators in the workplace when it comes to salary ( or but we’re not that bad at negotiation aside from a concern about social backlash ( Interestingly, the work cited in that last link (also here: and here:, indicated that observers are more likely to form negative impressions of a self–advocating negotiator if the negotiator is female rather than male. So maybe women are on the whole more reluctant to negotiate themselves out of bench work for fear of forming a bad impression? 

For whatever reason, it is important to carve out time so that grants are written properly and papers published. I’ve since negotiated with my mentor to put another cloning experiment on the back burner until my semi-complete paper is submitted. This is a step forward but it really only came about because of the annual review and I realize that it was long overdue.


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