Reflections from women in the life sciences and healthcare

We are eager to hear from women about their experiences of working in the academic and commercial life sciences and healthcare fields. As part of the effort to collect women's views we would appreciate women's responses, however brief or long, to the following question:

What factor would you single out as the most important change for women in the life sciences and healthcare sector in recent years?

Responses so far: changes for women

These are some replies so far to the question 'What factor would you single out as the most important change for women in the life sciences and healthcare sector in recent years?'

Being taken seriously and treated as an equal.

Senior industry executive, UK

In 2014 the MRC and other RCUK funding bodies changed their rules about the time limit for fellowships. What I see – as a more senior woman in the profession is that there are a lot of women at postdoctoral level but there seems to be an issue with transition to management. The fellowship scheme enables people to make that transition. However one is eligible for it when one is around 30 which is also when many women think more seriously about having a family or other family matters come up (e.g. ageing / ill health of parents). The 6 years was a hard deadline and prior to 2014 if you exceeded it making the transition was very difficult. Now there is additional flexibility about when one can get funding so it enables life to happen. What factor needs to change? Flexible working. In Law, Medicine, Finance and the Civil service it is completely OK for anyone to work flexibly e.g. 4 days or 30 hours per week. Science still massively lags behind.

Dr Ann Wheeler, Senior academic researcher, UK

The most apparent important change for women (and some men) in recent years is the increased cost of child care. For my generation of scientists, it was possible to employ fully qualified nannies to look after our children; those choosing nurseries found them flexible. The women who worked with me in my research group were all struggling with ad hoc child-care arrangements and were always on call to attend any illness (frequent in nurseries).

Furthermore there is societal pressure for mothers to take at least six months maternity leave and this has quite important consequences for them as individuals and the work of the team.

I really do feel dismayed to see how much more difficult it is now to combine research and a family than when I did it 30 years ago. I don't know the answer- clearly the nannies were being paid much too low salaries in the past: my only hope is that employers could provide affordable and flexible childcare.

Professor Pamela Rabbitts, Senior Researcher, UK

I will answer the question: what has changed for women in the life science sector in the recent years? with another question "has anything changed really?"

Senior academic researcher, UK

The fact that (some) men are starting to acknowledge the gender inequality and are willing to act on it. Women alone cannot do much. A commitment from men is needed to change the status quo. It is happening – slowly.

Senior academic researcher, UK

Mine is a commercial world and the changes over the last 10 years is the increased number of companies being run by women and the increased number of women appearing on the Boards of companies, both in our sector and others.

Senior industry executive, UK

Sadly, change has been incremental and not nearly fast enough for me. For context, our Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) folded in the early 80's because "now that we had Title IX in place it was all going to be equal." I helped re establish MassAWIS in the 90's at the evidence of almost no movement on pay and equity in academia or non-academic science workplaces. Perhaps the biggest change is a shift in men's and women's goals on work/life balance priorities. With more men demanding change in the workplace, perhaps we will see some change. Also, sexual harassers all need to be exposed, fired and sent to jail. That would be good.

Senior industry executive, USA

The slowly growing recognition that menstruation and childbearing do not interfere with clear, scientific thinking! I'm still serving as the CEO of my small biotechnology company despite being a 77-year-old grandmother of three grandsons. We older women in the field need to encourage the younger ones not to be disillusioned by the sexism and sexual harassment that most of us have encountered along the way. The next challenge is to encourage women (and men) of color to join us as well. It is essential to choose a supportive husband if you're going to have a family as well as a successful career.

Dr Merry Sherman, CEO, Senior industry executive, USA

Not sure about 'recent', but in my view the availability of child care is extremely important. The other is that husbands or partners are more willing to participate in child care. On discussion with younger people (men and women) they singled out the following factors: flexible working hours; companies having to publish statistics on number of women in various companies and having to publish statistics on number of women in various positions in the organization.

Professor Maria Leptin, Director EMBO, Germany

My answer is two things: The recognition that unconscious bias has a negative impact on recruitment of women. This is starting to be addressed through action plans and training programmes. Secondly, programs which educate women on behavioural traits that impact their ability to gain recognition and compete with men effectively at all levels. The second action is much less taken up than the first action and my hope is that this can be implemented early in women's careers, for example early teens.

Senior Academic Researcher, UK

To my mind, the single most important change for women is that most people in the field are willing to acknowledge that there is a problem. There may be a lot of disagreement about how (and whether) to fix the problem, but the issue of diversity is at least on the table. I'm not sure that this has improved anything for anyone, but at a minimum we can have a conversation about it. The reasons for the change? I think in part there is a generational shift where male colleagues are now more likely to be involved in home-life and they are more able to see what women have had to do with less assistance. More men are likely to be married to working women, making them directly aware of issues that women face. Lastly (and maybe most importantly) high profile exposes like Nancy Hopkins at MIT and the recent lawsuits at the Salk serve to shine a light on the issue that is often invisible. Institutions pay attention to this type of notice.

Senior Academic Researcher, UK

That people now acknowledge there is a problem with the number of women in top science jobs and with the number of women leaving science and are 1) discussing it and 2) concerned about trying to sort it out. I think there is a long way still to go, but in order to solve it, we need to admit there is a problem and then want to change it.

Senior Academic Researcher, UK

In my opinion, the most important change for women in the life sciences is the recognition that there are unconscious biases and inequalities. This has opened the dialogue towards finding solutions that will further improve gender imbalances and the difficulties encountered by women at various stages of their careers.

Senior Academic Researcher, UK

Until recently, I would have said the most important change for women in the life sciences and healthcare sector was the increase in positive female role models. Historically, the predominant role model for women considering a profession in our field was that of a male role model. There were certainly many women who were key players in so many of the successes, but for a plethora of reasons they did not get the visibility and recognition they deserved. We have come a long way since Marie Curie's day and have many visible examples today of successful women. This opportunity for young girls to see successful women creates a real and clear goal to work towards. The power of role models – when someone can see "someone like them" reaching positions of success - cannot be overstated.

I started my response stating that I would have said more female role models. However with more women moving into leadership at all levels, comes unconscious and conscious bias, and at times outright intolerance and discrimination. We may have started to make solid headway on the diversity component of 'diversity and inclusion', but inclusion is not something we've cracked yet. We have not yet achieved the state where women can feel we are competing on a level playing field based on our merits. Perhaps most egregious is that we still need to be vigilant about our personal safety in our workplace.

So I revised my response from female role models to social media. We now have a tool where women can communicate with other women to let them know how we've been positively supported or inappropriately treated. This has opened the door to women helping pave the way by sharing their stories. They can also share their bumps in the road where their path wasn't as smooth as it may have appeared to the observer. This is because women haven't been willing or had the opportunity to share their struggles. I have heard too many women thinking that it's only them who are experiencing struggles balancing work and family life; that we're not advancing at the speed; or being paid for similar work as that of our male colleagues; or worse yet, that we've actually experienced inappropriate treatment.

This open sharing of experiences has two key outcomes. We can positively impact each other's journeys by hearing about tools and resources, building our confidence by knowing we are not alone, and that our speed of progress may be due to long-standing cultural issues and not ability. But perhaps a more subtle outcome is that by this wide-spread communication, we are better able to relate to our male allies that women face a different work experience than that of men. These 'guys who get it' in turn are now better informed and are actively leaning in and speaking up when they see situations of gender inequality in the workplace.

And companies are listening and making changes to create a better work environment that attracts, promotes and retains the best talent; agnostic of gender! The potential is so powerful for the life sciences and healthcare field if we can truly create a work environment where women and men can achieve their potential based on their abilities and grit to solve as of yet unsolved problems.

With the advent of social media's acceptance in our daily culture, we are at an inflection point and there is no turning back or quietly closing Pandora's Box. Simply said, all of us cannot move ahead, if half of us are left behind. I'm so proud to have worked my entire career in this amazing industry and excited to be part of Marie Curie's 150th birthday celebration. I am confident that she would be incredibly proud of what women are accomplishing and the very real future state of gender parity that is within our grasp.

Laurie Cooke, CEO Healthcare Business Association, USA

Responses so far: challenges for women

These are some replies so far to the question 'What do you see as the most important challenge for women in the life sciences and healthcare field?'

I think its important for women to see the achievements of other women. For me, it would have been helpful to know what was achievable and what I was capable of doing. Seeing other women who "made it', who took career risks or even juggled family and work, is really inspirational and I think has pushed me to aim higher and be more confident in what I am able to achieve.

Dr Maryanne Mariyaselvam, Clinical research fellow, Cambridge, UK

As a recipient of the PhRMA Foundation's grant, and as an active researcher for the past ten years, the major challenge I find for women in health sciences are 1) Balancing work and family, and 2) Upper administration thinking women are not up for administrative positions/promotions because they have a young family.

When I often see successful women in research, I notice couple things: either they are divorced or they do not have children. Again, this is very anecdotal, my observation is those women with couple of huge grants, no family (this can be an interesting research topic). The second one is going up the ladder. The upper administration does not want a young or even mid –career woman with kids to take up administrative positions. They don't think like that for men. Most men go up the career ladder in their forties. Women have to wait to be in their fifties for the same opportunities. They are not even asked whether they would like to be considered for promotions, it is taken for granted. This is surely in addition to the pay gap for women which is well documented.

As far as solutions, I think increasing the awareness about these situations. For example, for the first situation, may be a survey of all academic faculty in this regard will help… and put it out there for the discussion to begin. For the second issue, in my world of pharmacy, when the Deans of all colleges of pharmacies meet, these are great topics to be presented, probably they are not even thinking about.

Elizabeth Unni, Associate Professor, Roseman University of Health Sciences, USA

I am a scientific reviewer for one of PhARMAs funding groups. I've worked with women in science for many years in both pharma and academic research settings. I currently work at Riley Hospital for Children. Riley is an excellent environment for advancing women in scientific and medical positions due primarily due to one factor: we have top leadership (men and women) dedicated to providing opportunities for advancement to qualified female candidates. In fact, most of my group, including my supervisor, are talented women. However, during my previous 17 years at a leading Pharmaceutical company, my experience was the complete opposite. In general, male leadership was supportive of advancing qualified women at the company. However, the women in leadership worked very hard to stop the advancement of other women into their ranks. It was very frustrating and upon discussions with peers at other companies, I learned that in general, women are not always as supportive of advancing other women as are the men! The irony just stuns me. I imagine that there are a number of reasons for this behavior, but it needs to stop. So, what do I see as a key challenge for women in science and medicine? It would be educating and encouraging female leaders to be more supportive of cultivating and advancing qualified women throughout their careers.

I have puzzled over this for years now. I had great respect for the female leaders at my former company. They had exceptional life stories and it was clear that they had to overcome many hardships to advance in their careers. Perhaps because of this they held a much higher standard of required achievement for women than men?

Some years ago, I sat on the advanced scientific promotions committee of my former company. The committee was given guidance to seek out qualified female scientists for consideration for promotion. My department wanted to promote two of our top female scientists, who were enthusiastically supported by the many men on the committee. Much to our frustration these women were blocked from promotion by the only two women on the committee, who were Vice Presidents. I complained a bit too loudly and was dropped from the committee the following year. The company has since moved forward in bringing women into meaningful top executive spots, but still remains male dominated and passes over many women for promotion into leadership positions, in spite of superior qualifications. I hope that this is the industry exception rather than the rule.

Here at Riley I have been super impressed by my Section head (a female) and the Chairman (a man) who are completely committed to bringing in and promoting the best people. Not surprisingly, at least half of them are women. The only difference between my former company and the University Hospital are the attitudes of the leadership, male and female. While both men and women need more education about equality in the workplace, I'm pretty sure that many women would benefit from rolling up their sleeves and being even supportive of their own gender. A lot of us men have gotten the message and are willing to do our part.

Mark Marshall, Co-Director Riley Precision Genomics at Indiana University Health, USA

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