Careers in Scientific Research : Stalling Progress for Women

Despite best intentions, and evident progress over the past few decades, the stark reality remains that there are fewer women choosing careers in scientific research, with men continuing to occupy the most senior positions across the board. How can it be that despite some past progress and victories, progress for women in this area has stalled?

By definition science is about progress and breaking down barriers, it is about challenging the norms and innovating change. How then, can a profession, which by its very nature seeks to innovate and create positive change be dented by an ever-present gender gap in the area of scientific research?

How can it be that women researchers are still paid less, are promoted less frequently, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave scientific research positions than similarly qualified men?

A dearth of women in scientific research

A recent study, published in March 2014 by Nature1 confirms the dismaying extent to which women are under-represented in science. The study reveals that in the United States and Europe, around half of those who gain doctoral degrees in science and engineering are female — but barely one-fifth of full professors are women.

And the figures are decidedly more disheartening when it comes to women in scientific research. You only have to look at graphs, such as one from Eurostat, to see that in Europe, there are twice as many men carrying out research as women.

A quick focus on the situation in the UK, one of the world’s most advanced countries for women in science, along with the USA, shows that only 13% of women are currently employed in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) jobs, with few pursuing senior research positions. This loss of women at the latter stages of a scientific research career is often referred to as "the leaky pipeline.”

So what exactly is the problem?

Dr Susan Faulkner, B.Sc. PhD, C.Psychol, a STEM ambassador in the UK, explains, “I regularly talk to pupils in schools and colleges who are making decisions about University courses and careers. The length of education and

training seems to put many girls off and this is not helped by the lack of high profile female role models in scientific research,” she says.

“I know many women who get so far in their careers but hit a glass ceiling. This may be due to the perceptions and biases of largely male gatekeepers but also due to the difficulties of combining a demanding research career with a satisfactory home life.”

“Also, many women in the early stages of an academic, scientific researchbased career can only get jobs on short term contracts with fierce competition to get into tenured academic posts,” adds Dr Faulkner. “These posts, particularly in the high profile Russell Group institutions in the UK are largely dominated by male professors and academics. Most women I know who have broken these barriers are women who have chosen the career option in place of having a family,” she explains.

The life of scientific women

Indeed, a complexity of factors conspire to make it difficult for women to pursue scientific careers at the highest level - from lack of financial support, to a shortage of mentors, a lack of research funds, negative attitudes, politics, family issues, work/life balance, motherhood, child-care etc.

Eminent researcher, Jacqueline Belloni-Cofler, Emeritus Research Director at CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) experienced many obstacles throughout her career but was able to over come them thanks to

exceptional support both professionally at CNRS and privately, thanks to her husband’s support of her career.

“As for any woman with a profession, it is essential to organise family life,” explains Dr Belloni-Cofler. “This is particularly difficult in the world of scientific research, as the first task of a scientific researcher is to stay informed of the constant evolution and rapid advances in your field. It is therefore practically impossible to take temporary absence for family reasons. In addition, it is vital to prove yourself constantly, to meet deadlines and produce studies to create respect and support within the industry. This can be extremely difficult when you have a family.”

“I have been fortunate to receive continued support from my husband, especially as my career gained momentum. He helped me to balance life as a researcher and as a mother with young children. It is an unfortunate reality that

many women take leave of absence to focus on their family due to lack of support and the difficulty of establishing a work/life balance.”

Pauline Serre, an engineer currently completing a thesis on nanotechnologies, has chosen to pursue a career in scientific career but recognises that it is not an easy road to travel. “In my engineering school and my choice of programme, which focuses on research, the number of females on the course is weak, with less than 25% of students being women,” she says.

“I see many women already having to take leave for family reasons and they find it difficult to come back to study, to reintegrate into their team and project. It is difficult to manage once you have been away as the demands and
constant need to interact and report findings is so great.”

“I come from a family of female scientific researchers and have had excellent role models from an early age, who have shown me that this career is possible. I know it won’t be easy and am conscious that I will probably delay having a family in order to succeed in my choice of career,” she adds.

Professor Reiko Kuroda says that it was exactly the anti-female sentiment in her home country of Japan that boosted her research career. “To obtain a position at a university, which enabled me to carry out research was particularly challenging,” she explains.

“It was almost impossible in my days for women to obtain a good university post unless you were well connected or extremely lucky. My PhD supervisor told me that best thing for women was to get married. So, I went to England where I was able to pursue much more easily."

My PhD supervisor told me that best thing for women was to get married.

While the gender gap is prevalent for a number of reasons Professor Kuroda recognises that “women scientists are more resilient, motivated and determined,” because they have to be.

Plugging the “leaky pipeline” and levelling the field

The need to readdress the balance is more pressing than ever, particularly with these latest studies showing that women are increasingly reluctant to continue a career in scientific research.

For Dr Belloni-Cofler there needs to be more work at grass-roots level, to convince and show females that a career in science is possible. “By putting female researchers in front of girls at an early age, by making their journey and success visible, we can motivate girls to get involved with science,” she argues. “It is also essential that female scientists are present at conferences and science festivals, and are part of committees and decision-making bodies,” she adds.

Beyond that, “financial support, mentoring and the ability to travel to facilitate research and garner international interest in research results, are also fundamental factors in increasing women’s presence in science,” says Belloni-Cofler.

Large firms need to be willing to adopt flexible working hours to encourage women back into work after maternity leave and be more open about pay disparity between the sexes. This, coupled with greater government initiatives, to support women in science will go a long way in changing the tide for women in science.

Nobody claims it will be easy but it’s time to stop making excuses and get on with changing both the perception and reality of women in science – for the better.

1 Nature special Women in Science March 2014:

For Women in Science

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