Karin Bodewits and Philipp Gramlich think we should stop actively persuading women to study life sciences – a field in which they face unique challenges.
Guest contributors Philipp Gramlich and Karen Bodewits
In all STEM subjects, women continue to be vastly underrepresented in higher positions. From postgraduate level onwards, women seem to be much less successful – or keen – to pursue higher career paths, a phenomenon known as the “leaky pipeline”. What could we change to plug the pipeline without compromising the meritocratic values essential to our working culture? And what makes women lag behind in the first place?
As we can’t pin it down to a single factor, two dominant “solutions” are being used by governments and educational institutions. At the bottom, we encourage as many women as possible to study STEM subjects. From the top, quotas are being introduced for higher job levels. While quotas are controversial, the projects targeting female students are not being questioned, although they are effectively clogging – not plugging – the pipeline by injecting more women at undergraduate level – seemingly – without a longer-term plan. In the life sciences in particular, women have responded in record numbers at undergraduate and PhD level to those “clogging programmes”, where they already constitute the majority. But is it fair to suggest that students of any of the STEM subjects will have a great professional life – no matter if they’re in engineering or biology? And – even if our targets of redressing the gender balance at top positions could be reached by clogging the leaky pipeline – can we be proud of this achievement if we don´t consider the cost?
Case study: Karin Bodewits
“When I started studying biology in 2001, I was told the 21st century would be the era of biotechnology. Start-ups and spin-offs were springing up everywhere, and for good students terrific opportunities would be available. Ten years of international studies, internships and research later, I left the university with a PhD degree. I wasn’t the only one. An army of life science PhD graduates were steamrolling job fairs, all searching for the “Promised Land”. It was in these moments that I began to realise that there were less jobs out there than there were graduates – the biotech era was not as successful as many predicted. I realised my future would be years of limbo dancing from one temporary contract to the next. I felt my biological clock ticking, but would have no job security if I got pregnant. I learned that, despite my passion for science, I studied the “wrong” subject!
Now, another five years down the line, oxygen levels have dropped even further at life science job fairs. If I meet my old study mates, I see job satisfaction in some, desperation and frustration in others. When working with the next generation of students and young researchers, I see the situation is even more extreme. I see many mothers struggling to find intellectually satisfying positions after one contract ends. I see the result of the clogging programmes – more women afraid to combine motherhood with science.”
In contrast to engineering and technology, life science is a tough labour market for job starters – a field with long qualification periods, in which competition in a tightening job market is rife and where health and safety regulations prevent pregnant and nursing women from working in the lab. Not perfect conditions, especially for women.
When we asked ourselves if anyone benefits from training for a saturated labour market, we came to suggest a new approach: stop actively promoting all STEM fields in one lump. Make promotion more targeted, introduce differentiation! We have a lack of chemical engineers, physicists and process engineers? Then recruit female pupils for those specific fields! And at the same time be honest enough to tell them that learning to purify a protein makes them stand out from the crowd as much as the ability to read.
Instead of injecting more diversity at the bottom, talking women into long study periods with challenging career perspectives, we should try to plug the pipeline by focussing on the many women that are already present at graduate and postgraduate stages. Give them, and particularly young mothers, the flexibility, infrastructure and confidence to live their passion for science and break through the glass ceiling. Give them the chance to pull the balance right!
Karin Bodewits, PhD graduate from the University of Edinburgh, founded the enterprise ScienceMums, which aimed to help mothers bridge the gap between family and career. Last year, she founded the career platform NaturalScience.Careers, working as author, speaker and seminar leader for topics like “Women and Career”.
Philipp Gramlich has studied and researched chemistry at various universities in Germany, Australia and Scotland. After experience at baseclick, a biotechnology start-up, he is currently team leader at Eurofins Genomics as well as co-founder of NaturalScience.Careers.