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New Investigator Digest

Posted By Connections Editor, Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Combating Gender Disparity in Academic Science

Stephen M. Sykes, Heather A. O’Leary, Sofie Singbrant- Söderberg and Adam C. Wilkinson

The term “glass ceiling” is a metaphor for the unseen blockade that impedes a certain demographic from reaching the upper echelons of a given hierarchy. It is commonly used in reference to the invisible barrier that obstructs women from climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, though it also applies to other demographics and industries. The ultimate glass ceiling in the United States (US) was recently challenged when former Senator and US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was nominated as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate – a historical first. However, she lost the US’s top job to the Republican nominee, President Donald J. Trump. Though there are numerous possible reasons for Clinton’s defeat, President Trump’s victory has reignited discussions about gender disparity and how females are viewed in today’s world. To stimulate conversation and awareness regarding women in academic science, Drs. Teresa Bowman (Albert Einstein College of Medicine, US) and Louise Purton (St. Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, AU), released the first of their five-part series on Women in Science in November 2016 on the ISEH Simply Blood blog. In conjunction with Drs. Bowman and Purton, myself and the other members of New Investigators Committee (NIC) have put together the following New Investigator’s Digest to complement that series, as well as poll the opinions of various academic scientists in the greater hematology research community.

Does the Glass Ceiling Exist in Academic Science?

Retracing the steps along my own academic career path, I recall a well-balanced distribution of females and males in my undergraduate and graduate classes as well as in both of my postdoctoral laboratories. However, my recollection is that male professors drastically outnumbered their female counterparts throughout. Consistent with my experiences, several studies report that gender parity exists at the early career stages of biological and medical scientists, such as PhD awardees, those admitted to medical school and medical school instructors [1,2]. However, in the mid-2000s, women represented only 29-39% of tenure-track professor positions and just 17-25% of tenured professorships at US universities and colleges, including medical schools/institutes [1,2]. This disparity worsens in the sciences: US National Science Foundation reports that only 21% and 7% of full professors in science and engineering, respectively, are women despite approximately half of the PhD awardees being female [3]. In addition to unequal gender distribution among professors, female scientists overall, are significantly underrepresented in the pool of investigators funded by the US National Institute of Health [1], paid less than their male counterparts [3], display lower rates of patenting [4], and when in a prominent authorship position (e.g. first or last author) are less likely to have their papers cited [5]. Dr. Celeste Simon (University of Pennsylvania, US) points out that Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Scientific Advisory Board Memberships also tend to be male-dominated.”

These patterns of gender disparity are not just exclusive to North American society either. A 2006 analysis conducted by the European Commission (EC) revealed that only 15% of full professorships in European countries are held by women [6-8]. An updated analysis from the EC in 2015 reported that, while progress had been made in some countries, patterns of gender disparity remain [9]. In addition, gender inequalities and imbalances are commonly found in scientist-generating powerhouses such as Germany, Italy, Russia, Canada, China and India [10-16]. It is clear from these reports – which represent just a handful of the numerous studies describing the current state of gender inequality – that the glass ceiling, also referred to as a ‘leaky pipeline’, does exist in academic science. So, what are the sources of these inequalities and what strategies can be used to establish gender parity in the scientific community?

Factors Contributing to Gender Inequality in Academia

In order to develop actionable strategies to solve any problem, one must first recognize the underlying source(s) of the problem. Like many complex problems, gender inequality arises from multiple factors. When we asked academic scientists what factors contribute to gender inequality, in their opinions, many respondents acknowledged issues related to child-rearing. Dr. Keith Humphries (Terry Fox Cancer Center, CA) comments “I cannot back up my impressions with hard facts but…my strong sense is that a major factor relates to the lack of support for child rearing.” Prof. Tariq Enver of the UCL Cancer Institute in London, UK, where career development or junior fellowship hires are nearly equal between females and males, adds that he often sees a disproportionate reduction of female candidates making it to the next career stage roughly equating to Senior fellow/Reader or Associate Professor in the North American system and that maternity may be a significant factor in some of these cases. Indeed, regardless of society, the primary responsibilities of child-rearing often fall on the shoulders of females and this may in part contribute to gender inequalities in the workforce. In fact, women are often paid – and even valued – less than men because it is presumed that their responsibilities as a mother will hinder their productivity and worth. Moreover, mothers are 79% less likely to be hired and are more likely to be underpaid [17]. In a 2002 report, Mason and Goulden found that men with children are more likely to achieve tenure that their female counterparts [18]. However, the study also found that women without children were still less likely than men to obtain tenure indicating that parenthood does not fully account for the attrition of female scientists or gender biases. As pointed out by Dr. Meg Urry in a 2015 Nature Comment, if gender inequality was solely explained by women being the primary child caregivers, then countries such as Sweden and Denmark, which have vastly superior family-support programs, should have much better gender balance than countries like the US [19]. However, though gender imbalances countries such as Sweden and Denmark may be less than others, they still remain prevalent [20,21].
What then are additional factors that contribute to gender equality? Obviously, as a society we must consider our own perceptions and potential biases. In a recent study conducted by the L'Oréal Foundation, it was found that 67% of European and 93% of Chinese people surveyed, do not believe that women possess the necessary attributes for becoming high-level, successful scientists [22,23]. Moreover, although the survey respondents believed that nearly one-third of the highest academic positions in the European Union are occupied by women, the reality is that only 11% of women occupy such positions [22]. These statistics indicate that not only do our stereotypes influence our consciousness, but they are also ingrained into our unconscious psyche. In a seminal study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, Moss-Racusin et al. reported that both men and women have gender biases rooted in their unconsciousness. These conclusions were based on a randomized, double-blind study in which professors evaluated female and male applicants for a lab manager position. Male applicants were consistently rated higher and were seen as having more potential than their female counterparts. Interestingly, a similar bias was discovered regardless if the hiring professor was a man or woman [24]. This study shows that both women and men carry biases towards women, suggesting that there are societal factors that strongly influence our unconscious, which ultimately direct our behavior.

Professorship turnover is also a contributing factor for the disparity between the number of male and female professors. As pointed out by Dr. Catherine Porcher (University of Oxford, UK), the slow turnover of males not only limits the number opportunities but also creates a male-dominated atmosphere: “a male-dominated culture [has been] present for decades in the academic world for historical reasons, mainly owing to the fact that more men earned PhDs until the mid-90s. This has perpetuated male senior recruitment and not facilitated female recruitment to academic leadership positions.” Also, the reduced number of female professorships leads to “a shortage of appropriate female role models… especially in med schools where the senior leadership is largely male” as stated by Dr. Marisa Bartolomei (University of Pennsylvania, US). Dr. Simon adds that “as the number of female “role models” increases in tenure track professorships, this will also help increase the number of female scientists seeking this type of job.” However, the rate of turnover in some settings can be very slow. Dr. Giuliana Gobbi (Università degli Studi di Parma, IT) notes that, in Italy, “the retirement age is about seventy and most of the Academies are reducing the number of professors. For this reason, the professor turnover is slow and the mean age is quite high, therefore contributing to the low number of female professors”.

In search of additional factors contributing to female attrition along the academic scientist career path, Ley and Hamilton performed a retrospective analysis of US National Institute of Health (NIH) grant applications over a 10-year period [1]. One interesting observation that came out of the data was that female physician-scientists make their decision to leave the academic career path sooner and more often than female PhD scientists or male physician-scientists. One plausible explanation for this pattern is that female physician-scientists actively leave academic science to pursue more attractive and amenable career options, such as clinical practice [1].

While many save the best for last, here we have saved the worst for last: as a strong contributor to gender inequality appears to be old-fashioned chauvinism. Though overt chauvinistic comments and behaviors have decreased over time they still occur. Consider the comments made by Nobel laureate Dr. Timothy Hunt [25] or the resignation of Geoff Marcy for continually sexually harassing female students [19] as just some of the more high-profile recent events. However, speaking with many of my female friends and/or colleagues, it is clear that subtle forms of chauvinism remain prevalent. Dr. Glenn Rall (Fox Chase Cancer Center, US) says “that gender inequalities are less obvious than when I was a graduate student in the 1980s…though there are still subliminal ways in which one’s gender as a scientist impacts one's reputation and relationships.” As an example, Dr. Rall recalls multiple occasions of sitting in seminars where female trainees are presenting, yet instead of asking questions directly to the trainee, audience members relayed their questions to the male mentor whom was also sitting in the audience. Some other examples of such behaviors include: patients and/or fellow medical staff referring to a male physician as ‘Doctor’ and a female physician as ‘Miss’ or ‘Nurse’; or when female colleagues are referred to as ‘over-emotional’ whereas males are ‘passionate’; or when tough male managers are called ‘task managers’ whereas tough female managers are described with derogatory terms. While it is said that “you can’t take such comments personally” or “the person did not intend them to be sexist”, the aggregation of such comments, regardless of their intention, can act like a thousand cuts to anyone’s psyche, and both women and men need to understand that such comments/behaviors are unacceptable.

Actionable Strategies for Balancing Gender in Science

So: gender inequality in academic science exists and many of the causes are known. The question that remains is “what can we do to combat gender disparities?” Several of the respondents we spoke to, commented that multiple strategies are needed at several levels, such as governmental/policy, institutional/resources, and personal/emotional support. Therefore, we have attempted to provide several examples of actionable strategies within each of these three realms.

Government/policy based-initiatives:

In February 2014, The New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) organized the first Initiative on Women Science and Engineering (IWISE) meeting, which brought together women from various walks and career stages of science to discuss and develop actionable strategies for promoting gender equality. The IWISE working group recently published the summation of this meeting, which recommended seven actionable strategies towards gender equality [26]. Of these seven strategies, two were policy-based:

  1. Implementation of a flex family-care spending policy;
  2. Establishment of “extra hands” awards.

The flex family-care spending policy recommends that a certain percentage of grant award funds should be eligible for use towards childcare, eldercare or other “family matters”. The aim of this gender-neutral policy is to encourage female or male caregivers to travel to scientific symposiums or give invited talks, which are critical for career advancement. The ‘extra hands’ award is a funding mechanism aimed at female and male scientists who have recently become primary caregivers. The award would provide funds to supply extra personnel (e.g. technicians, administrative assistants, etc.) that make work life more seamless as young principal investigators become caregivers. Such ‘extra hands’ awards have already been implemented at many institutions [26].

Indeed, Dr. Ayako Nakamura-Ishizu (Cancer Science Institute at the National University of Singapore, SGP) mentions that “the [Japanese] academic society does provide grants and fellowships specifically targeting researchers who are raising children”, but she also points out that “I am not sure to what degree these measures promote female scientists to continue to higher positions”. Dr. Porcher provided another example that has shifted people’s perceptions and aims at reducing gender imbalances in the UK: “In the UK, the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) charter was established in 2005 to encourage and recognize commitment to promoting the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) and, more generally, addressing gender equality. In 2011, Dame Sally Davies, then head of the UK National Institutes of Health Research (NIHR), mandated every University Department to have an Athena SWAN Silver Award (a milestone-driven moniker of progress in promoting gender equal work practices) to apply for funding from NIHR research programs. This single action changed attitudes to Athena Swan and has really triggered a momentum for change. Everyone is now more conscious of the gender imbalance as a problem that needs to be addressed.” Dr. Porcher also recommended “removing age and time restrictions in eligibility requirements for all personal fellowships especially those for the transition from trainee to professor, as this is being implemented in the UK. This allows for the extra years that can be required to finish building a competitive CV. It is also critical to increase specific funding schemes for women coming back from a career break.”

An additional strategy that may help quench the child-rearing factor that influences female attrition in academic science is to improve the maternity and paternity policies. Drs. Humphries and Enver cited Sweden as a source of model maternity/paternity laws. Dr. Humphries recalled “I have spent some time in Sweden and they seem to have it right in terms of providing support for families. Excellent maternity leave shared between mother and father.” Dr. Enver added “partners don’t always do their share of childcare. In Sweden, some child leave days are assigned specifically to the mother or the father; these are not transferable between parents and are lost if not used. There are also days that may be used flexibly by either parent. There is also a financial bonus if days taken are divided equal between the partners.”

Institutional/resource-based initiatives:

The IWISE working group has also proposed five strategies that can be applied by scientific institutions (e.g. universities/organizing committees/journals/funding agencies/etc.) to promote gender equality [26]:

  1. External review boards and organizing committees should adopt gender-balanced selection approaches (studies have shown that having at least one female on a selection committee leads to significantly more invited female speakers);
  2. Implicit bias statements should be incorporated in the hiring process, grant reviews or selecting reviewers for submitted manuscripts;
  3. Use of education as a tool to diminish gender inequalities and biases;
  4. Development of institutional report cards of gender equality;
  5. Creation of easy-to-use databases that can be used as a tool to identify females that can serve as journal reviewers, board members, invited speakers, grant reviewers etc.

Dr. Enver provided four specific examples based on his own experiences/institute: “Some institutes will only fill an open professor position if at least one female candidate is identified on the shortlist. We also insist that at least 25-30% of interview panels are comprised of females. We also do online diversity and gender bias training to challenge people's inherent biases. Finally, my executive board has a 50% gender distribution.” 


Dr. Simon pointed out that gender inequalities still exist at high-impact journals: “It’s very clear that editorial boards are still more favorable to male senior authors than female senior authors.” After recognizing their own gender biases in the world of journal publications, Nature recently implemented a series of internal policies to improve gender equality [29]. While 54% of Nature’s 70 editors are females, it was recognized that only 14% of referees were women. Moreover, only 18% of profiled scientists were women and 19% of externally-written Nature Comment or World View articles were penned by females. In an attempt to progress towards neutrality, prior to commissioning referees, authors, etc., Nature now has its Editors ask themselves “Who are five women I could ask?” While this is a subtle initiative, it should help to combat against the unconscious biases that nearly all people have.

Doug Hilton of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia recently chastised the Australian Academy of Sciences (AAS) for not only having just 8% female membership, but also that in 2013, none of the 37 short-listed candidates were women [30]. Dr. Hilton discussed two options for remedying this situation: (1) prohibit funding to universities or institutes that do not have gender equity plans in place (recommended by the AAS) and (2) allow only one man join the academy for every woman [30]. In a bold move, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) recently announced that it will hold two extra rounds in 2017 and 2018 that will only admit women. This courageous leap was ignited by the fact that 87% of the current 556 members are men [31].

Institutions can help to alleviate some of the stresses associated with being a parent scientist. Dr. Harvey Lodish recently wrote an article describing his experiences mentoring both female and male scientists and he noted that creating a family-friendly atmosphere in the lab and at institutes is crucial to retaining women in science [27]. This of course includes providing easily-accessible and affordable childcare options. As noted by Dr. Hilton [28], institutions can also provide additional family-supportive resources such as designated rooms for breast-feeding/milk production or for small children to play as well as older children to do their homework.

Personal/emotional-based strategies:

When asked, what actionable strategies are needed to promote gender equality, Dr. Bartolomei responded “greater support for woman at all stages, whether it be emotional (help create the perception that women can do this job) or whether there be resources available for families.” Dr. Bartolomei continues, saying that “some female trainees feel that [they] can’t do this job and have a family. I think that you can IF you have a partner who is willing to contribute substantially to the family, home etc.” This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Simon who has “seen male and female partners share the burden and both be extremely successful scientists, so [being a parent scientist] need not be a major problem”. Indeed, the importance of a supportive partner is crucial component to the success of the parent scientist. However, there are certain aspects of the mother-child relationship that cannot be substituted by someone else. Dr. Rall reminds us that “while both men and women have kids, only women carry and deliver babies, and often are the early source of food for them; thus, a working mother’s challenges are different, and more, than a man’s.” Moreover, a female colleague of mine expressed to me “I personally limit my attendance to conferences and seminars away from home to maximize the time I can spend with my children, no matter the quality of the childcare I could get for them when I am away.” Thus, while policies and support are key strengthening components to assisting female parent scientists, the emotional aspects of the mother-child emotional bond must also be considered.
Combatting gender inequality also requires that both females and males acknowledge that gender biases exist as well as be introspective about their own roles in gender imbalances. As pointed out by Dr. Rall, “It’s not, I think, wrong to acknowledge gender (or race, or orientation) differences and how that affects the workplace environment; it’s just wrong to make assumptions about one’s professional capacities based on them. It’s a problem that we as diverse scientists need to solve together”. In fact, acknowledging different behavioral patterns between men and women is key to developing initiatives that promote gender balance. For example, Dr. Enver expresses his anecdotal experience that “women [tend] not put themselves forward for promotion as readily as men” and provided the following scenario: “If promotion has X criteria, men will apply if they meet 1/2 of them. Women won't apply until they meet 100%.” As a result, Dr. Enver says of his institute that “we now have a promotion panel that reviews everyone who is eligible for promotion regardless of whether they apply or not.” Dr. Marella de Bruijn (University of Oxford, UK) cites several studies [32-34] suggesting that “Women and men are both ambitious, but women are more likely than men to value a work-life balance that allows them to pay attention to other interests and commitments too.” Dr. de Bruijn also mentions that “Women tend to get promoted when they already have the skills for the next job, while men tend to be promoted on the basis of their potential. There are some suggestions this is unrelated to them not putting themselves forward.” While Dr. de Bruijn acknowledges that these are generalizations, they do fit her experiences. Another female colleague of mine also believes that difference in gender behavior may also contribute to imbalances: “The intrinsic competitive nature of science (grants, publications…), makes it, in my opinion, more attractive for men in general than it is for women”. Dr. de Bruijn points out that it is also key for women to recognize their strengths: “women can actively contribute by being aware of the specific strengths and unique skills they bring to their department/institute, learn to play to their strengths, and learn to advocate for themselves.”

Personal/emotional support for female scientists often comes from their scientific mentors. Dr. Porcher says that “joining a mentoring scheme” and “planning one’s career at an early stage: making sure data end up in a paper, applying for fellowships” are steps that female scientists need to be particularly pro-active about and this is where mentors play a key role. Choosing a PhD or postdoc mentor is a challenging task for any young scientist. After all, one’s mentor will likely be the person that most-significantly contributes to a junior scientist’s career path – so be sure to make an informed decision. Besides scientific track record, it is also important to consider mentorship record – how many scientists (female and male) has the prospective mentor previously trained and how many went onto to stay in academic science?

Additionally, Dr. de Bruijn comments that “Women (and men) should be actively encouraged to hone their professional skills in their postdoc, to make the transition to a tenure track position easier. This can be ‘on the job’ (supervision, grant writing, etc) and/or by following specific courses. EMBL, for example, has courses for postdocs on how to run a lab, and several places run grant writing courses. In general, career support and encouragement can in many cases be improved.” Dr. Porcher also expressed the importance for women to be proactive about networking, volunteering for committees and opportunities to present, attend international meetings and build collaborations. This is essential to help them increase their visibility. To help young female scientists realize their full potential and maximize their total output to propel their future careers, postdoctoral fellows, Drs. Sanjeevani Arora, Ilsiya Ibragimova, Jacqueline Simonet and graduate student Jennifer Alexander (all of Fox Chase Cancer Center, US) developed their own program, called the Women Love Science Group. This community helps female scientists promote their careers by conducting professional development activities and by providing opportunities to network with women leaders in academic research and in healthcare industry. Programs such as these empower and provide confidence to young female scientists, as well as building networks among female scientists.

In Summary

The goal of this New Investigator’s Digest was to promote the discussion regarding gender imbalances that exist in academic science. It is clear that gender inequalities remain prevalent and our aim here, was to contact fellow scientists to identify some of the root sources of such inequalities as well as present a collection of strategies that are currently being applied/developed to combat such inequalities. There are multiple factors that contribute to gender imbalances and both men and women, as individuals as well as at the levels of government, institution and industry, need to work together to develop actionable strategies to extinguish such inequalities. We hope that this article will raises awareness of such societal discrepancies and helps readers open the discussion and consider ways to achieve gender equality.




First and foremost, we express our thanks and gratitude to all of the interviewees, who have provided such great input regarding this topic. Second, although much of this article is written in the first person, all of the members of the NIC, in one way or another, helped to generate this piece. Special acknowledgments to Heather O’Leary, Sofie Singbrant Söderberg and Adam Wilkinson for editing, and Teresa Bowman and Louise Purton for their wonderful blog series.


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