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Hays Salary & Recruiting Trends 2016

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The case of the vanishing women

Anyone questioning the visibility of women in the life sciences industry recently would have been left in no doubt by the image that resulted in this response from Elsevier. The original image that caused such controversy across social media depicted “All 2013, 2012 and 2011 Nobel Prize winners published with Elsevier”.

All were white. All were male.

To be fair, Elsevier pointed out that the image would have looked a lot different had they expanded the inclusion criteria to include the several female Nobel Prize winners prior to 2011 who had published with them. But the whole episode was a stark reminder that in 2014 gender diversity is still a hot topic in science and the industry is not a level playing field.

So what can be done to repair the leaky pipeline of women entering the life sciences industry? We already know from our first article in this series (The Female of the Species) that female science undergraduates outnumber males. Yet men were six times more likely to work in science, engineering and technology than women. So where do all these female science graduates disappear to? And why are we losing these brilliant science minds?

Why women are abandoning science

The UK trade union Prospect looked at this issue recently. A survey of its female members revealed that their reasons for leaving their careers in science were many and varied. A large number were simply unhappy in their current roles, or had left for career development reasons. Uncertainty of funding or of contract renewal was identified as an issue particularly affecting women working in research. There are also concerns about promotion or progression and remarks like, ‘It is exhausting working in a world of men’. Many women identify part-time working as an issue, particularly the lack of promotion or progression. There may be legislation to prevent discrimination against part-time workers, but that has clearly not addressed the issue. The impact of having a family was also highlighted.

In fact, women’s family commitments seems to be a big issue. Around 50% of respondents reported that taking maternity or adoption leave had detrimentally affected their careers. Being absent from the workplace, the implications of going part time and changes in the attitudes of employers or colleagues were all offered as reasons. This is supported by findings from another survey that revealed 81% of women believed having children would affect their career progression.

Many of those who have taken time out to have or look after children highlight that time out of the workplace has an inevitable impact on their careers. The general consensus was that time away from the workplace signals to colleagues and employers that women have chosen to step back from their careers. But in today’s world of virtual offices and 24-hour global communication, it seems incongruous that women must physically be in the workplace to demonstrate their commitment.

There has been a call from UK policymakers for universities to do more to keep women in science. The short-term contracts that typically characterise early academic careers are highlighted as a key stumbling block for women:

“There is no single explanation for the lack of gender diversity in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]; it is the result of perceptions and biases combined with the impracticalities of combining a career with family.” Report: Women in Science Careers, Science and Technology Committee.

We need more than inspiration

Emphasis is often placed on inspiring young girls to choose science at school as a solution to the leaky pipeline, and the number of female science undergraduates proves that this has been successful. But these efforts are wasted if we cannot address the imbalance further up the pipeline, after graduation and when women hit the mid-career stage.

In academia, the career pathway typically starts with a PhD, followed by a number of short-term research contracts prior to gaining a permanent academic/research post. But the loss of women working at each career stage following postgraduate training, from postdoc to lecturer, senior lecturer and professor needs to be addressed.

Similarly in industry, the loss of women as the career pathway progresses needs to be stopped if we want to see more women in the boardroom. What do you think we need to do to repair the leaky pipeline of female talent? If you are a woman working in life sciences, what would encourage you to stay in the industry?

Engage with fellow Life Sciences professionals across the globe and stay up to date with the latest Life Sciences news, by joining our LinkedIn group, Life Sciences Industry Insights with Hays.

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