Women in Research

In my relatively short time in academia, I’ve noticed something odd.

When I was an undergraduate studying psychology, almost the entire class was women with only a few men scattered around the lecture hall. But then almost all of our lecturers were men. I didn’t think too much of it at the time – there are so many career paths following a psychology degree that I assumed the women went off to something else rather than stay and take lectures and mark endless exam papers (‘if you can’t do, then teach,’ after all! – my husband *a teacher* asks me to clarify that this is a joke). But then as my course went on, I realised the majority of students don’t actually manage to get into those highly competitive career paths, which also required years of additional training. So where did those hundreds of women go? How did academia filter out and keep those few men?

I admit, I didn’t really think about it beyond that – I was more concerned with seeing the world and getting a job. As it was, I couldn’t get a job (always too under or too over qualified!) so I embarked on a PhD instead.


But the same thing happened again. My neuroscience PhD course (at a different university to my undergraduate degree) had an intake of 5 students per year, and has always had females as the majority of students. My old PhD office sat 8 of us, 7 of which were women. In fact the majority of researchers (technicians, students and post-docs) in my current lab are women. But the men in professorial and powerful positions greatly outnumber the women, and this certainly doesn’t reflect the proportion of males and females lower down in the academic food chain.

Perhaps I am being paranoid? Or just over-thinking it? Because I don’t believe for a second that women are less capable of achieving those top positions (many do manage and are great role models). And there’s no sexism in academia, is there? Is there??

So I looked it up, and I found some statistics.

I despaired that the statistics (from the UK and from the U.S) confirmed my observations that there is a huge disparity between the number of women entering scientific research jobs and those carving out successful academic careers (although I was also pretty pleased that I wasn’t just making it up!).

In a 2012 report by WISE, it was found that more girls took A-level biology then boys, and what’s more, girls got higher grades in STEM (science, technology, engineering & maths) subjects! (There doesn’t seem to be an exact equivalent of A-levels in the USA, but they seem to be somewhere between APs and freshman year).

So us women are obviously good at science at school, and actively show an interest in it. But another report by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) identified that 25% of women stayed in science following their undergraduate degrees, compared to 40% of men, and a lower proportion of women stayed in research following their PhDs compared to men. For 2012-2013, the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that despite women making up 45% of all academic staff in the UK, they made up only 22% of all university professors.

So why are we dropping out of a subject we enjoy and are good at, along what the RSC describes as a ‘leaky pipeline’? Why aren’t more of us getting to the top?

Drip (1)

Well, it seems to be a combination of things – some of which I’ve experienced, some I’ve heard about, and some I’m preparing for. Here are just three of the biggest contributors:

  1. Babies

I don’t like to concede that having a family can be detrimental for a woman in academia, but it is. And it’s a biggie. Academia is very competitive. In many cases, taking time out for maternity leave (if you even get maternity leave) is not compatible with keeping up with the latest research, meeting deadlines, running experiments and publishing papers. All of these are essential for getting the best grants, the most funding and the most sought after jobs. Having a baby can be viewed as putting yourself out of the game, and it’s not easy to get back in. Pregnancy and maternity leave can be a long period of time that men just don’t need to consider or make up for.

And, oh, the planning that has to go into it! I recently got married, and of course the inevitable baby questions have come in waves – including from supervisors and colleagues. Perhaps on the face of it, it seems like an intrusive question, but for a woman in science it’s a very important consideration that can impact her career, so it probably needs discussing. While I don’t intend to get going on that issue for a few years, I feel like I ought to start planning when will be the best time NOW, and it’s getting pretty complicated. As I mention in a previous post, moving between labs internationally is considered the best thing you can do for your research career. So would I be happy starting a family abroad? Where in the world will I even be in a few years? What if I can’t get a job abroad in the next few years, start a family and then lose the opportunity to take a contract somewhere else? What if I get a job abroad and leave it too late? And the questions continue! A sacrifice or a concession is going to have to make an appearance somewhere, and it’s easy to see how and why so many women sacrifice career progression for a family – for most women, short contracts and instability aren’t compatible with propagating the human race.

Of course, men will have similar family pressures, but their lack of a uterus and the prevalence of traditional parenting roles make this an issue that is easier for them to get around.

But it’s not all about babies!

Plenty of women in the top academic jobs have families. So it’s not a total road block to success. But it does make things more difficult for women compared to men in the same position.

  1. Education doesn’t eradicate misogyny and sexism

You’d think that years of high level education and being at the forefront of scientific advancement and human understanding would prevent prejudiced attitudes, but no, not entirely. Attitudes to women within academia are no better or worse than in the ‘real world.’ I’ve never witnessed any overt sex discrimination at work, but the subtleties are pretty common. For example, I have overheard a male professor refer to a female post-doc as ‘cutie’ in the lab (a term not reserved for his male post-docs, I assume). Whether she is happy to be called this is her business, and perhaps this language can be put down to senior staff belonging an ‘older generation.’ But perhaps more disturbing is hearing a male PhD student discussing a senior female member of staff and declaring that he didn’t respect her work or think she was any good, partly because ‘she wasn’t even good-looking.’ If the new generation of ‘forward thinkers’ believe that the abilities of a female scientist, MUCH more qualified and experienced than themselves, can be judged by their appearance, then what hope do we have??!?! Thankfully the people that hold these opinions are in the minority – but at the moment the minority are becoming heads of department…

Now, I very much doubt an arrogant PhD student is going to affect the career choices of an established member of staff. But in environments where these attitudes are more common, where female staff are judged by their clothing, where their chest achieves more eye contact than their face, and where their jobs are considered less prestigious because they are held by a woman, many less senior women and students won’t feel comfortable and won’t want to work there. Understandably.


  1. We don’t talk about it. Or do we talk about it too much?

In my research for this post, I came across numerous articles that claimed that women are told from the beginning of their research careers that they will hit more roadblocks, will be discriminated against and will have a tougher time than their male colleagues – and that this warning is enough to push women out of a research career at an early stage. While I can totally understand why this would be the case, I’ve never actually been told this (except for the multiple, disheartening times I have now read it on the internet!).

Perhaps there is a disparity between the UK and the USA? We tend to be a bit more reserved in the UK, so maybe that’s why no one has ever discussed this with me or my fellow colleagues. But I think this lack of discussion is probably just as damaging (if not more so) than terrifying warnings! For example, I intended to send an email to some of my colleagues asking if they had ever experienced any instances of sexism at work, or if they thought there was a problem with the proportion of women making it to top jobs. I typed it out, I put in the addressees…and then I deleted it! I’m ashamed to say I was too embarrassed to send it – I’ve never discussed this issue with any of my colleagues and I have no idea what they think about the position of women in science. If it was more openly discussed, perhaps it would be easier to challenge inappropriate behaviour and attitudes in academic workplaces, and provide more support.

In short, there are multiple reasons why we are losing talented female scientists from academia, but they can be tackled.

Programmes are now in place that are aiming to change attitudes and increase support – for example, the Athena SWAN charter is now in place at 114 UK universities, and aims to support and encourage women in science, as well as to promote diversity and equality.  The problem has been reported in the media, academics are increasingly aware of it, and both women and men are becoming less accepting that things ‘are just the way they are.’

Hopefully then, we will soon start to see less women leaving academia, and a more equal representation of women in those top positions, respected for their talent, intelligence, abilities and hard work.

The Biocheminist

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3 responses to “Women in Research”

  1. Roger says :

    You’ve pretty much summed it up with your assessments. The babies one will never go away. Women will always have to stop work, even for a short time, to give birth. As for the other reasons, It wont be any time soon. You’ll have to give it a few more generations before all sexism in any workplace is eradicated. You have to remember that ‘old dogs’ can’t be taught new tricks.

    • thebiocheminist says :

      I actually couldn’t agree with you less! Of course there will always have to be time off for having children, but things could be improved by including provision for maternity leave in more grants and short contracts – in some cases if you get pregnant during a contract, there’s no flexibility as the work must be done by a certain date, so you essentially lose your job as the project and funding can’t be put on hold. In addition, the things that should be included to be considered as criteria for success could be expanded – at the moment there is a ‘publish or perish’ culture in academia that is starting to receive a backlash, but consideration of other aspects of the job such as supervision, teaching management are all important skills and experience that would suffer less substantially from time away. The problem in this case isn’t so much that women have babies, but how academia deals with it. As for sexism in the workplace, it is totally unacceptable to just wait for the ‘old dogs’ to die out and assume the pups will have new attitudes. Even if sexist attitudes of the old guard can’t be changed, they can adapt their behaviour and actions in the workplace, and there should be consequences if they don’t. Part of forming this change will be actually acknowledging it’s a problem and doing something about it, rather than waiting for it to go away. It’s also important that a good example is set for the new generations of researchers – if they keep entering academia and seeing that senior staff consider women as inferior or as incapable of climbing the ladder, nothing will change. In short, yeah babies and sexism will always be a problem for generations to come – UNLESS we actually do something about it. And people are.

  2. christinebowles says :

    I think ageism is a factor too. It is easier for a man, even if he starts a family, and particularly if he has a stay at home wife, to concentrate solely on his career and so achieve a higher level at a younger age. A woman, to compete equally has to forego family. If she has a family first (taking time out to ‘be a mother’) then starts to build a career she will find herself competing with peers maybe 10 years younger. Employers who legally can’t use age to discriminate will still look unfavourably at an older candidate who hasn’t yet achieved any more than a younger one. The way society (and biology) deals with parenthood naturally disadvantages women.

    Happily things are changing in the real world (outside academia) and even those old dogs are learning new behaviours. They may still have the old habits, but they’ve been taught better by the law.

    There’s still a way to go though, and there seems a huge difference between a ‘normal’ job with a permanent contract, and the kind of transient jobs post docs get. To stay in academia in research it would be hard for a woman to kick start a career and have a family, bearing in mind the biological clock. One alternative would be to put career on hold, get a job outside academia, then return to it post children and start from scratch, five to ten years older, and no wiser, and far less likely to get grants, and no longer having the contacts you made during PhD studies. The other alternatives would be have a stay at home husband, or ship the children off to full time nursery.

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