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Career progression for women in science is still being stifled

6 Sep 2019

A new study of more than 500 scientific institutions has found that career progression for women in science is ‘disappointingly low’.

With initiatives like Athena SWAN in place today, we’re certainly working towards greater gender equality in the world of science.

But according to new research, we still need to up our game in terms of helping women progress in STEM careers.

Women now make up half of the student body in life sciences courses but less than one in four professors are women.

This is outlined by researchers who explored data from more than 500 scientific institutions worldwide, and concluded that the number of women climbing the career ladder in science is “disappointingly low”.

What are the problem areas?

The study found that the process of retaining women and promoting them into positions of influence is stunted, with women having fewer chances than men to serve on committees or speak at scientific meetings.

But that’s not all. A whole host of other factors come into play, including unconscious bias, tensions with work-life balance, poor funding and pay, and a lack of networking opportunities.

The data, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, came from 541 universities and research institutions in 38 countries across the US, Europe and Australia.

The study found that women made up more than half of undergraduate and postgraduate students and 42pc of assistant professors, but only 23pc of full professors.

Leaky pipeline

What it likely boils down to is something called the ‘leaky pipeline’. Clearly, women are interested in pursuing science at third-level but, beyond that, career progression doesn’t seem to be sustainable.

Dr Jessica Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London, commented on the study but was not involved with it. Speaking to the BBC, she said: “There is no point in encouraging more girls into science if the system is set up to exclude them.

“Improving gender balance in science will take institutional commitments to support women in their applications for promotion, act when there are reports of sexual harassment or bullying, and make work allocation more transparent.”

Initiatives to take inspiration from

In Ireland, there already some programmes in place that are trying to overcome any gender disparity in STEM.

Pharmaceutical company AbbVie works to promote programmes that increase awareness among girls and women of how rewarding careers in STEM are, and cites role models as a critical ingredient to achieving this.

Other initiatives include Girls Hack, run by Science Foundation Ireland’s Insight research centre for data analytics, which provides STEM career resources for parents and teachers, and workshops for young women.

Tackling this problem isn’t just a case of achieving gender equality, which is hugely important in itself. It’s also a matter of acknowledging the work of scientists who have made tangible, significant contributions to research and who may be sidelined purely because they are women.

There is still a long way to go to reach equality in this area but we must continue to move forward. Otherwise, we may not even see it come to fruition in our lifetime.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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