Barometer stubbornly stuck on low pressure for Women in Life Sciences

Jan Peters, co-author with Nancy J Lane, of a review of the Status of Women in the Life Sciences
Full article published April 2015 and available here:

“The chattering classes seem to be talking non-stop about the skills shortages in engineering and the under representation of women at all levels. Don’t get me wrong, I am passionate about women in engineering, but I’m increasingly concerned about the lack of progress in the life sciences and what this might mean should the engineering numbers rise.

You could consider the life sciences as a barometer for progress in addressing the under-representation of women in STEM, having had parity or better with men at undergraduate (47% in 1970 in the UK) and postgraduate level for some 30 or so years. But the cracks in the glass ceiling are all too stubborn. It’s true we have had some very high profile appointments of life science women and even recent Nobel Laureates, but the fact remains that in the UK at professorial levels there are still only 15% women. I was a bit startled too to read Sheltzer’s work published last spring of the few women in elite life science laboratories. Perhaps it’s time for a re-focus – so when the engineers make it to 15% of professors, the cultural barriers and inequities in recognition have already been addressed and it is but a fleeting point. I learned three lessons from undertaking this review.
Why is there a continual need to justify work on gender or diversity and science?
In 2014 organizations and businesses were still questioning the business case for diversity and demanding evidence. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills obligingly complied (again) and published another business case document. In a  previous (2006) report from the European Commission evidence of better performance by more diverse teams was published. The authors surmised that increased diversity was achieved in parallel with a greater investment in training managers to acknowledge, respect and make better use of their diverse teams. So rather than needing to make a case for increasing diversity the case was clearly one of better management practice, summarized in the InterAcademy Council report ‘Women for Science’ in 2007. It isn’t like some life science business sectors don’t employ a high number of women – in private sector pharmaceutical research there are 45% women across Europe; why is it so much lower in other life science sectors? What can we learn?

So lesson 1 – Let’s see a consistent high standard of good management practiced across the life sciences with a due high regard for fairness, respect and equitable reward to all.
How are we to advance women into senior leadership positions?
It’s always a difficult question: is it targets, quotas and / or merit as a method for addressing the gender gap at senior levels?
No man or woman wants to be seen as a statistic or special case. We all want to achieve based on merit. I have always been against quotas but have come to the conclusion that as a short term policy measure it is the only option. In places where quotas have been introduced such as Norway the evidence contradicts the argument that they lower the quality of appointments to boards. For those strongly opposed to quotas, saying they are unfair, don’t forget that they are being introduced in a system that is already inherently and unconsciously not fair. It is not the quotas themselves that cause the change, rather the affirmative action of creating strong candidate pools, awareness of unconscious bias and other efforts that ultimately make the difference. (Why else do we continue to see women excluded from some of the most prestigious laboratories?) Without quotas, efforts to make a difference seem to lack impetus.

Lesson 2 – Organizations need to take a much tougher stance on implementing affirmative action. Quotas are a short term policy kick-starter and are not to be feared.
Is our science gender inclusive?
How come in 2015 we still read of research ignoring gender as a variable in studies of disease and medicine?
Does it matter that medicines aren’t tested on men and women? Who would have thought that Aspirin was never tested on women and yet is taken by millions everyday? A meta-analysis in 2006 showed that Aspirin affects platelets differently in men and women. What more might we learn by doing better science? The European Commission evaluated the Framework 5 Programme and showed how few science studies consider gender when there is a scientific reason to explicitly do so. As a result new measures have been implemented for Horizon 2020 Programme that will require scientists to explain if they do not address gender in their studies. This is all good, but these policies have no impact on private sector research. So it is likely that we shall still we hear of work that has failed to consider half the population and may cause potentially life threatening errors or will miss crucial discoveries.

Lesson 3 – A new vigorous dialogue is needed on the male orientation of science to ensure that gender becomes a de facto consideration for every piece of work.
For the main waste of talent and missed opportunity is not in engineering, but in the life sciences where so many women have studied and been lost. Academia, policy makers and employers must turn up the heat and do more than offer networking or personal development events for women and address an issue that faces the life science community as a whole.”

Jan Peters PhD FRSA : Director, Katalytik Ltd : 0797 4011278 : Skype Peters475 :<> : :


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