Soapbox Science

Top Recommendations from Top Women in Science

Dr Seirian Sumner & Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, (Institute Of Zoology, Zoological Society of London). 

Why are there still so few women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathemathics (STEM)? School girls are as excited as school boys about science, so the potential is clearly there. Yet we still do not routinely see female professors dominating examination panels, research institute directorial boards or the Royal Society fellowship community. Why is it so?

Clearly, the lack of women in science can be sourced from the loss of trained and skilled young women from STEM careers. The main highlighted reasons triggering their departure include fertility choices, stereotypic behaviours in the scientific community and work-home balance, as career progression in these competitive jobs is associated with a long working week and strong disincentives to have children. Women also tend to find the culture of male-dominated STEM departments and the scarcity of female role models off-putting. A report by the Royal Society of Edinburgh recently pointed out that the lack of part-time opportunities, the perception by the scientific community that part-time working is not compatible with a science career, the demand for high geographic mobility, the expense and availability of flexible childcare support, and the difficulty to re-enter the STEM sector after a career break are important reasons triggering the decision to leave.

But is this really what the women who are active in science think the problem is? And if so, how do they recommend we tackle the issue and stop the female brain drain? Enough of costly ‘advisory committees’ – we went directly to the women who have survived and made it (or are on their way) to the top in science. We asked 16 of the UK’s leading women in science to tell us what they understood to be the main reasons of why women leave science, and to offer their own solutions. Here we synthesise their suggestions, and along with our own opinions and experiences, come up with achievable recommendations for preventing women leaving science.

Top recommendations:

  • Recommendation 1: Provide all women in science with a committed mentor or ‘career champion’.

We need to stop telling young women how hard it is to be a woman scientist and start telling them about how amazing the job is”, Prof Judith Mank (UCL).

“Create a supportive, nurturing and flexible work environment…filled with respect and understanding”, agrees Prof Nicky Clayton FRS and her postdoc Dr Corina Logan (Univ. Cambridge).

“We need to get rid of macho cultures in research labs to create more supportive environments, equipping girls to have confidence in both their work and themselves”, adds Prof. Kate Jones (Univ. College London)

Mentoring is a hot topic right now, but one that has played second fiddle to the traditional ‘sink or swim’ attitude in academia, where any show of a lack of confidence is perceived as failure. Mentors fundamentally differ from a manager or boss who might direct a path of action: a mentor is someone who will share experiences and help more junior colleagues make informed decisions, to achieve their full potential. As Dr Sue Black (Univ. College London) puts it, being mentored is about being allocated “a ‘champion’, who will ensure that the mentee is maximising her career opportunities”. Mentoring should be mandatory in university departments, and available to any researcher at any career stage. In providing such support, the working environment will become more nurturing, encouraging and transparent.

  • Recommendation 2: Inclusion of a ‘family support financial supplement’ in funding applications

“Allow research grant money to be spent on child care, or provide more affordable child care”, Dr Nichola Raihani (Univ. College London)

Earmark funds to support research programmes and teaching during maternity and during  nursery years”, Dr Deborah Goberdhan (Oxford)

Data collection is rarely compatible with family commitments – be they caring for an elderly relative or a young family, or juggling a long distance relationship. Yet, there is no compensation available to pay for the extra childcare a woman might need to finish her lab experiments that run on late into the night, or for a woman who wants to bring her family with her on those many months of fieldwork abroad. Allowing greater flexibility in how grant money can be spent (without being penalised) is a small, yet significant, step towards helping young parents better balance their personal and scientific lives.

  • Recommendation 3: Provide institution-based support for women in the critical years

“Provide job sharing options and incentives to encourage academic institutions to promote and support women beyond first postdoc level”, Dr Deborah Goberdhan

I believe that it is important to encourage and enable women who have taken a break after having children to return to research. There are some fellowships which facilitate this but they cater for very few and there should be wider schemes for enabling this (e.g. by the universities themselves for example)”, Prof Naomi Chayen (Imperial College London)

“Provide on-site crèche facilities” Victoria Hodges (SpaceCraft)

In science, the early career years (5-10 years post-PhD) generally demand a high level of spatial and temporal instability. A scientist must hop between short-term, low paid contracts in order to accumulate the international and intellectual experience and diverse skill set required to secure the much sought-after permanent positions. These years coincide with the period when men and women may wish to settle down and perhaps start a family. These conflicting demands generate enormous pressure on young scientists. Without institution-based support, such as affordable child care, most early career scientists who become parents find the bulk of their salaries eaten up by nursery fees, often making it unaffordable to continue working. In other professions, career breaks are an appealing solution. But career breaks for scientists can have severe impacts on future job prospects: even full-time scientists struggle to keep up to date with the literature, new methods and ideas. Institutes and universities must take responsibility in reducing the pressures on early career scientists, by helping them balance work demands and personal responsibilities. Universities that do this will be able to attract – and most importantly retain – the top women in science.

  • Recommendation 4: Provide funding to solve the two-body problem

“Your partner (of any gender) gets a job at the University of X (or equivalent niche job in the city of X), but there is no job at the University of X or nearby research institute etc, for you.” Prof Ottoline Leyser (Cambridge)

“Finding suitable positions in academics in a partnership is even harder than finding a position for just one of you. If your partner gets a job in another university, that can be the final nail in the coffin for a woman’s career”. Dr Heather Whitney (Bristol).

You don’t have to look far to find a women who has given up her career to follow her partner to another academic institution. Often, she ends up working in her partner’s lab as an over-qualified technician. What a waste…. The Royal Society floated a one-year fellowship scheme, allowing you to follow your partner to another institution. It folded though, apparently due to under-subscription. Perhaps 1 year is not enough. As suggested by Prof. Ottoline Leyser: “there should be a 5 year fellowship scheme to which the partner can apply, over which time a longer term solution is likely to arise at the University of X. It would need to be a relatively rapid response/no deadline scheme, but fully peer reviewed and with high standards.”

  • Recommendation 5: Empowering men to take equal responsibility in family life

“Fathers are parents too” Prof Ottoline Leyser

“Provide child care grants to allow the husband to work part time” Ruth Amos (Young Engineer for Britain Awardee)

“Everyone must accept and believe – and therefore act on – the fact that children are equally the responsibility of both parents. No more assumptions that they’re the ‘mother’s problem’” Prof Athene Donald (Cambridge)

“I would have found it difficult to maintain my career at the level it is at without my incredibly supportive husband who was prepared to stay home when the kids were sick or to fetch them from nursery or do the washing. “We need to change the culture. I think this is happening but not fast enough.” Prof Christine Watson (Cambridge).

Christine’s husband is an exception (but one we should celebrate!), not the rule. It is not perceived socially acceptable by many fathers, colleagues, employers or even the local toddler groups, for men to be taking on part-time work, flexible work or substantial parental leave. As noted by Dr Tamsin Mathers (Oxford), we need to “empower fathers as well as mothers to be equal (or more) partners in childcare and celebrate/appreciate those that are”. Changing social norms to reduce the loss of women in science clearly is perhaps the most difficult yet the most important and wide-reaching change needed to plug the leaky pipe of women in science.

  • Recommendation 6: More support and encouragement for part-time working

Routinely offer part time research positions. I did my BSc, PhD and first 10  years of my career as a single parent bringing up 3 children on my own. The possibility of part time work would have been invaluable for me during those very difficult years. “Dr Sue Black

“Part time research positions should be routinely offered. I remember when starting out after obtaining my PhD seeking part time, one potential employer told me at my interview that if I wish to work part time this means that I am not serious!” Prof Naomi Chayen

“Even in Industry…. part-time work seems to still be career limiting” Victoria Hodges

Part-time working does not make you a failing scientist. As expressed by Prof Georgina Mace (Imperial College London), “Long hours in the lab, in the bar and out-of-hours are not necessary for good science. All kinds of working models can be good. Everyone has to find the one that works for them and suits what they do, and then be judged on what they produce, not how they do it.”

Final thoughts

These are the opinions and experiences of leading ladies who have survived in science. And they are not social misfits! They are normal women – they have families, they have social lives, pets, hobbies… and they have some of the most fabulous jobs in the world. But they have borne unnecessary costs to achieve this – juggling long-distance relationships, alternating breast-pumps with pipettes, relying on family support and the patience of colleagues so their kids are not left stranded at the school gate. Their love of science has been their motivation to succeed, yet a life scientific has created a lot of unnecessary obstacles for them to surmount. Here we have provided a set of achievable recommendations for society, funders, employers and fellow scientists. If implemented, these recommendations could ensure that the next generations of female scientists do not repeat history and bear the same, yet avoidable, costs. We have struggled – there is no need for the next generation to fight the same battle. In a open effort to promote women in science, we are putting 13 top female scientists on real Soapboxes on London’s Southbank, on Monday 16th July. Please come and hear about their work – or join the conversations with us on Twitter @SoapboxScience.



  1. Report this comment

    Margot Saher said:

    I think in general these recommendations are a very good idea. All these women leaving science have been invested in, and have invested in themselves, and that all goes to waste. But I think recommendation 1 is not such a good idea. If I would be assigned a mentor while my male colleagues aren’t, it would give me the idea my employer thinks I can’t cope on my own, only because I’m female. And what is a mentor going to do if I, for instance, have children, and can’t work full-time for a while? Or if my partner finds a job at a university far away? Will this person conjure up part-time research jobs? Get me a position at that university too? Not very likely. Just someone who says “you can do it” won’t change the actual issues…

  2. Report this comment

    Zen Faulkes said:

    Recommendation 4: Spousal accommodation policies are a great idea, but ultimately, spouses probably want (and need) jobs. And that can run afoul of fair hiring and nepotism laws in a lot of places.

    Recommendation 6: This makes me nervous, given that many employers have a bad history of using part time jobs to disempower people, not provide benefits, make it easier to terminate, etc.

  3. Report this comment

    Syed Ashrafulla said:

    Recommendations 2, 3 and 4 require extra costs placed upon the granting institution. These institutions are often tightly budgeted. What would the researchers propose a university, for example, cut from its budget in order to accomodate a 5-year spousal fellowship, affordable childcare or family support supplements to grants?

    Recommendation 5 can’t be tackled by some public policy; it requires a societal shift and will come from the continued transformation of the workplace.

    I do think recommendation 1 can help, but not as posed (which has a tinge of chauvinism as described by Margot Saher). Better to have the members of a department collectively advise a new scientist as to the realities of being a researcher. For example, have recent hires who are starting a family talk to fathers and mothers in the department for advice on how to juggle career and family. That would provide a combination of advisement and inclusiveness beneficial to the health and science in that department.

    Like Zen Faulkes points out, recommendation 6 must be amended so that part-time science does not mean part-time benefits. Part-time science should have full benefits (health, job protection, etc.) save for the biweekly wage. Also, I believe with the preponderance of remote access to lab particulars (computers, data, etc.) departments can hire full-time scientists who do not spend the entire time at the job location.

  4. Report this comment

    Kathleen Mandt said:

    I agree with Margot’s concern about number 1, but I think it’s something that science has needed to do for decades and not just for the sake of women. A few of the senior scientists in my field are aggressive bullies who use reviews to suppress competing research and funding of proposals. Some of my junior colleagues and myself have struggled to survive when attacked by theses individuals. If I had a ‘champion’ to help me deal with this, I’d have a stronger chance at surviving. Unfortunately, the person for whom I have been working takes the ‘sink or swim’ approach to his students and post-docs. We desperately need a mentor/champion, not because of gender but because of culture. How many brilliant young men have also been lost to the field because of this culture?

  5. Report this comment

    Jenny Koenig said:

    I really take exception to the first quote “We need to stop telling young women how hard it is to be a woman scientist and start telling them about how amazing the job is”,

    Any woman scientist who has had children will know just how hard it is – especially if you don’t have a stay-at-home husband or family nearby. Trying to pretend otherwise is dishonest. It would be interesting to ask the women who leave science what they think.

  6. Report this comment

    Margot Saher said:

    I read somewhere that 83% or so of female scientists are in a relationship with other scientists. Not sure how accurate that figure is, but I do see that pattern in my surroundings. And if you have two people with such a demanding job, you hardly have time for anything else. So those who want a family life will have to sacrifice the career of at least one of the partners to get that flexibility. And that often boils down to the woman. I think both because in general, men are more career-focused and women more family-focused (one can hardly say that today, but I genuinely believe it to be true). And also because women tend to date men that are a bit older then themselves, and thus likely to be more senior. Their job will provide better financial security. So as soon as there is the choice between living far apart with two careers or living together with only one and a half, or between two careers and children, often the woman will yield. And I myself haven’t had to make that choice (yet), but if it does it may well go just like that. I love science but I want a life too…

Comments are closed.