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Let’s Talk About the Need to Invest in Women Researchers and Leaders

Let’s Talk About the Need to Invest in Women Researchers and Leaders

Every International Women’s Day, there is a call to retain talented women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, with strategies and proposals often given by influential organisations such as the United Nations. These proposals aim to steer improvement in workplace cultures and environments, and champion equity in the opportunities available to women across fields. The theme of this year’s United Nations International Women’s Day is “Invest in women: Accelerate progress.” This blog discusses the leaky STEM pipeline with a focus on why we need to invest in women researchers, and sharing my own experiences as a woman pursing mental health research.

The leaky STEM pipeline

The analogy ‘leaky pipeline’ is often used to describe the progressive loss of talented and capable women from the higher education sector, and research and development (R&D) workforce at different stages of their career. Globally, UNESCO reports that whilst gender equality in STEM has reached parity at undergraduate and master-level, only 33.3% of women pursue an academic career despite women comprising 44%-55% of PhD graduates in STEM fields (Lewis, Schneegans & Straza, 2021). There is a growing recognition that this gender gap is an issue for all, not just women. Gender inequity harms scientific advancement as fewer women researchers results in a lack of diverse perspectives and experiences informing R&D. This inevitability impacts the robustness of solutions to some of the world’s greatest unsolved problems.

Whilst the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields are common in almost all regions of the world, there are disparities across countries. In addition to this, there is variability across fields. For example, in health and welfare research (e.g., psychology), UNESCO data reports that women appear to dominate the workforce, yet this cannot be said for engineering (Huyer et al, 2015). Despite the differences in the number of women researchers across fields, a common experience shared is the lack of equity in funding allocated (Shillcutt & Silver, 2019; Jebsen et al, 2022; Women in Global Mental Health Research Group, 2023). Within my own field of mental health, it should be noted that barriers women face in becoming an independent researcher will be exacerbated by the competitive and scarce landscape of funding. In the UK, it is well established that there is a chronic Government underinvestment in mental health research comparative to physical diseases. In 2018, only 6.1% of the UK’s health budget was dedicated for mental health research and this remains largely unchanged in the last decade (UK Clinical Research Collaboration, 2020). Unfortunately data is not available to analyse differences in how many UK mental health research grants have been given across genders, ethnicities or other characteristics. However, available diversity data from UK Research and Innovation relating to UK research grants across fields suggests fewer women are principal investigators compared to male counterparts (28% versus 58%), and obtain smaller size research grants (UKRI, 2021; Jebsen et al, 2022). This signals that even when women are equally participating in STEM fields, they receive less research funding to advance their field and career.

However, it is unlikely that the lack of funding opportunities alone explains the gender gap. In fact, there are several reasons that may explain the leaky STEM pipeline.

Why are women underrepresented in STEM?

First, it should be acknowledged that early on in their academic journey, girls can be dissuaded from pursuing education and careers in STEM. Gender norms and stereotypes, for example, that normalise science being “for boys only” can negatively affect girls and prevent them from considering applying their interests and talents (UNICEF, 2020; Donald, 2023). From my own experience, whilst during my PhD I have been fortunate to have received support to pursue my interest in mental health research and more broadly health-related science, this was not always the case. As a first-generation university student, over the years I have relied upon tutors and informal mentors to guide me in my academic decision-making. However, conscious and unconscious bias has certainty reared its ugly head on a few occasions. For instance, despite receiving good predicted grades at college (age 16+ education), I recall receiving ‘advice’ from a tutor who told me ‘don’t aim too high’. Thankfully, I did not listen. Even prior to applying to a PhD, I was asked repeatedly by male colleagues ‘are you sure this is for you?’ While this may appear harmless, upon speaking to my peers also pursing STEM PhDs, it transpired only those whom were women were asked repeatedly to defend our choice. It taught me that sometimes those whom we expect to empower us to pursue our talents do not always have our best interests at heart and to put it bluntly – underestimate us.

Second, for women who choose to pursue their research interests, there is an array of barriers that can prevent them from academic career advancement which likely contributes to the leaky STEM pipeline. Dubbed “the gendered system of academia” (Lundine et al, 2018), the aforementioned awarding of smaller research grants across fields (UKRI, 2021; Jebsen et al, 2022) inevitably cascades into women being less likely to publish, be first or senior authors (Holman et al, 2018), receive citations (Lundine et al, 2018) and hold patents (Delgado & Murray, 2023). One additional aspect to consider is the lack of mentorship and sponsorship from research leaders (Holman et al, 2018), and ‘institutional gatekeeping’ leading to less women being signposted to opportunities and being overlooked (Jebsen et al, 2022). Given how critical active participation in research activities are for promotion into senior positions across STEM fields, these barriers may offer an explanation as to what may drive the lack of retention of women.

Third, women at all levels across all research fields were disproportionality affected by the covid-19 pandemic (Gabster et al., 2020; Davis, 2022). In addition to the majority being on either fixed-term or junior faculty roles (Jebsen et al, 2022), women faced increased childcare obligations and household chores (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2021).

Finally, one core aspect to consider is the role of intersectionality. Intersectionality refers to the identities (i.e., gender, maternity, relating to sexual orientation, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, dis/ability) that overlap with one another leading to experiences of further disadvantage and/or discrimination due to historic, persistent and systemic barriers (King, 2024). For instance, at the time of writing, out of 23,000 UK professors only 66 are black women thus demonstrating the intersectionality of both gender and racial inequalities in contributing to the leaky STEM pipeline and reinforcing the urgency for systemic change. More recently, given the low stipends received by many PhD students around the world, the cost-of-living crisis has also sparked concerns due to having a disproportionate impact on specific groups of students. These include those from a low socioeconomic background, PhD students with a disability and PhD parents facing increased costs due to a lack of childcare schemes (Francis & Franklin, 2023). This lack of financial support and advocacy for the next generation of researchers may act as a further barrier to dissuade talented women from contributing to R&D.

What can be done to improve this leaky pipeline

Challenging the status-quo of the gender gap is not without difficulty. It is clear that there are a range of complex challenges that face women who do pursue research as a career from the lack of mentorship to funding inequity. This blog is not meant to be an exhaustive list but highlights the need to invest in women researchers and leaders and recognise that this has profound implications for discovery.

Funding sources and institutions play a critical role in bridging the gender gap by increasing investment in talent and addressing systematic barriers to ensure an inclusive work environment for women. Whilst efforts are being undertaken by institutions and funding sources to address funding inequity, there is no doubt that this contributes to the lack of retention and progression of women, specifically women of colour, across the sector. Tackling the leaky pipeline therefore must involve an intersectional approach. A more inclusive research funding system that invests in diverse groups can enrich the work of research through diversity of thought and approach. Research institutions must seek to develop early career female talent and encourage them to realise their talents, ambition and leadership potential.

I will leave you with this – At the end of 2023 I attended a book event held as part of the Science Museum lates event: “Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science” written by Professor Dame Athene Donald (Professor Emirata of Experimental Physics, University of Cambridge). After the event, I asked Athene for her advice on how to ensure inclusivity, diversity and equality in UK research. Athene gave me a brief and simple reply “Well, keep putting it on the agenda.” Although short and sweet, that is in fact an empowering piece of advice that allows anyone to take accountability and be an agent of change.

NB this blog has been peer-reviewed

References

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