This is a guest blog post by Prof. Eleftheria Zeggini. Ele trained in Biochemistry (BSc) and Immunogenetics (PhD) in Manchester, UK, before undertaking a post doc and subsequently a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellowship in Oxford. She joined the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, and is on the Human Genetics Faculty. Ele’s scientific interests focus on the genetics of complex traits, primarily cardiometabolic and musculoskeletal phenotypes, and on addressing relevant statistical genetics issues. She also leads the Wellcome Genome Campus-wide Sex in Science programme (http://www.sanger.ac.uk/workstudy/sexinscience/), which engages a wide base of scientists and drives policy and practice change.
Nature is committed to gender equality in the sciences. For more information, see our 2013 focus on Women in Science and recent Nature commentaries listed below.
By: Eleftheria Zeggini
Stats and facts
Internationally, women are represented in diminishing proportions as career levels progress and significant numbers of women leave science altogether. Commensurate with societal and cultural shifts, the issues that cause this well-recognised leaky pipeline now affect not only women scientists, but increasingly also men in science. In the UK, women are the underrepresented majority in science, making up ~17% of professors in all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines (with some variation across disciplines)1. For example, in the Biological Sciences women make up 58.4% of graduates2 but only 25.1% of professors3. The picture is very similar across Europe and in the US, where women earn 41% of PhDs in STEM fields but make up only 28% of tenure track faculty4. Women are also less likely to receive funding. For example, out of 22 European countries contributing data, 17 reported higher success rates for men5; the same trend is observed in data published by major funders in the UK6,7.There is also a well-documented pay gap. In the UK, women who work full time earn 17% less than men based on mean hourly earnings8; in Europe the official measure of the gender gap covering the entire economy was reported to stand at 25%9.
The case for change
There are numerous cogent arguments for addressing gender imbalance in science, ranging from fundamentally ensuring fairness and equality of opportunity (the moral case), to the financial and business cases for change. For example, approximately 820,000 science, engineering and technology (SET) professionals will be required in the UK by 202010. This unmet need can only be fulfilled by recruiting and retaining more women in scientific careers11,12. Increasing women’s participation in the UK labour market could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion (1.3-2.0 per cent of GDP), with STEM accounting for at least £2 billion of this11.
The business case is equally compelling. Heterogeneity in groups leads to improved diversity of perspectives, improved organisational performance and efficiency, increased productivity and creativity, better decisions and problem solving. It improves the ability to attract and retain the best talent, increases satisfaction and commitment within the workforce, and produces greater flexibility for organisations to respond to changing trends13,14.
Changing the landscape
Recent years have witnessed a swell of efforts to drive change. In the UK, the Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN Charter15, launched in 2005, has had a transformative effect16,17. Sally Davies’ inspired move to directly link possession of an Athena SWAN Silver Award to research funding eligibility in 2011 propelled it up the agenda of UK Universities 18. The European Union has been equally active in driving policy and practice reform, and international initiatives are further catalysing change 19,20. There are several strands along which efforts align –they form part of our toolset for changing the landscape.
The statistics are rather stark when it comes to the paucity of women in scientific leadership positions. It is important to make equality and diversity, not just gender balance, a subject of conversation across all scientists including, crucially, senior management. Regular events such as talks, panel discussions, workshops and debates can help raise awareness across the board and weave this topic into the fabric of workplace discourse.
Catalysing institutional change
Commitment from the higher echelons of organisations is a sine qua non in driving change. Enlightened employers understand that, to be effective, diversity has to be viewed as a strategic resource. For example, embedding gender balance into institutional strategy at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Hinxton, UK has helped achieve significant changes in culture, practice and policy, as evidenced by the recent launch of a returners fellowship21, a workplace nursery scheme, and a carers’ grant through which expenses incurred for caring responsibilities while travelling for work can be claimed22. Organisations can promote flexible working by enhancing the portfolio of relevant policies, making them prominent and easy to implement, by rewarding enlightened managers and colleagues23, and shifting the perceived culture of presenteeism. Transparency in workload allocation models can be key to ensuring fairness across the board 24,25. It is important to be mindful of how policies affect the whole employee base and to be cognisant of the potential disadvantages that established practices may confer, e.g. important meetings held at the end of the day or exclusive networking opportunities. Taken in isolation, these effects may be small, but their cumulative impact is substantial.
Addressing bias and challenging preconceptions
A first step towards tackling unconscious bias involves training for all, not just managers, but the entire workforce. Overt sexism occasionally rears its ugly head, although thankfully in diminishing frequency. Calling out inappropriate behaviour remains important and there are recent examples of concerted reactions, capturing the zero tolerance attitude of our time26. In everyday scientific life there are opportunities to point out instances when opinions are ignored, inappropriate comments are made, contributions are overlooked or double standards are applied27,28. Preconceptions should be challenged, for example the attributes of a good leader no longer follow the aggressive, sometimes despotic paradigm modelled by previous generations.
Promoting role models
The paucity of female role models powers a vicious circle that can be disrupted. Inspirational talks delivered by women and men scientists who have navigated successful careers whilst achieving work-life balance, can be peppered with great advice, relatable anecdotes, valuable insights and reflections. Further action can be taken by redressing the prevalent gender imbalance on conference organising committees and invited speaker lists. Public engagement and press-related activities can help further raise the profile of women researchers and provide role models for the next generation of potential scientists.
Mentoring and sponsoring
Mentoring and networking programmes can help support those at a junction in their careers. Although mentoring is valuable and important, women are typically over-mentored and under-sponsored. Mentors can be helpful in providing thoughtful insights and advice, but the challenge can be finding strategic support in a sponsor. Sponsors are powerfully positioned champions who advocate for their protégé’s career progression. This imbalance can only change through a drastic culture shift.
Increasing the number of women in senior scientific positions
It is well established that the proportion of women applicants for senior roles, e.g. for faculty positions, is low. To ameliorate this, search committees should be tasked to consider the full applicant pool and to proactively encourage suitable women candidates to apply. Recruitment practices can be improved by training shortlisting and interview panels on unconscious bias. For example, studies show that identical CVs are rated more highly when they appear to have a male name attached to them29. Similar considerations apply to committees evaluating grant applications, individual reviews and promotions.
Increased representation on decision-making committees
This can be accomplished by expanding membership criteria to avoid overburdening the typically small number of senior women in any given organisation, for example by including senior non-faculty scientists. This is also accompanied by career development, training and succession planning benefits.
Talent, diversity, opportunity and resource are key structural elements of scientific excellence. It is high time we disrupted historical trends to reinforce these pillars, transform science for everyone and reap the many rewards.
- WSC 104 [Scienceogram UK]; WSC 79 [Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Northern Ireland Assembly] para 6).
- HESA Student Record 2013 -2014
- HESA Staff Record 2012/13)
- Science and Technology Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2012–13, Educating tomorrow’s engineers: The impact of Government reforms to 14-19 education, HC 665, para 9
- WSC 74 [Society of Biology] para 1 – written evidence submitted by Society of Biology
- Tapping all our Talents. Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics: a strategy for Scotland, April 2012, Royal Society of Edinburgh, para 3
- Subeliani, D. and Tsogas, G. (2005), “Managing diversity in the Netherlands: a case study of Rabobank”, International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 16, No.5 May; pp 831-851.
- Ozbilgin, M. F. and Tatli, A. (2011), “Mapping out the field of equality and diversity: rise of individualism and voluntarism”, Human Relations, Vol. 64, No. 9; pp 1229- 1253.
- ‘The management of academic workloads: improving practice in the sector’, Peter and Lucinda Barrett, University of Salford/Leadership Foundation, 2009
- ‘Promoting positive gender outcomes in HE through active workload management’, Peter and Lucinda Barrett, University of Salford, 2013
More from Nature.com:
- Focus on Women in Science (2013)
- Sexism: Editor’s Note (Nature editorial 2014)
- Rethink your gender attitudes (Nature Materials editorial 2014)
- Sexism has no place in science (Nature editorial 2015)