#Womeninscience: Plugging the leaky pipeline, how can we retain more women in science?

#Womeninscience: Plugging the leaky pipeline, how can we retain more women in science?

Dr. Rachel Jackson, King's College London 

The problem is clear - despite starting from an even gender balance in the student population, women make up less and less of the research workforce as they move up the career ranks, a phenomenon dubbed the ‘leaky pipeline’. In academic research the most significant barrier seems to be the transition from postdoctoral researcher to principal investigator (PI). Whilst this issue is the focus here, it is important to note that this is not the only diversity problem in science (see Further Reading). I decided to explore the topic in my own scientific micro environment, the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, King’s College London. Our gender balance is even among students and postdocs and approximately 30% of the PIs are female. I discussed the topic with all colleagues but particularly asked women at all career stages to share their personal experiences, hoping to identify some common challenges that may contribute to the lack of retention of women. This is by no means a comprehensive coverage of the topic, which has been widely studied and written about elsewhere (see Further Reading).

Science can be a demanding career. After completing a PhD, most research staff are employed on short-term fixed contracts providing limited job security. During this period displaying mobility between different institutes and countries is prized. There is a pervading sense that after a couple of postdoc positions, researchers must either move up or out of the career path. Becoming a PI is not the preferred choice for everyone, but a significant proportion do wish to take this step. However, with few PI posts available and a constant supply of new PhD graduates, competition to progress is fierce. Candidates must juggle producing research publications from their current project with writing funding or fellowship applications. The slow process of funding decisions adds to the burden of an already short timeframe. These pressures, in addition to the passion that many scientists feel for their vocation and the demands of experimental schedules, mean working long and unconventional hours is common. However, these pressures apply regardless of gender, so why is there a disproportionate loss of women?

The postdoc years and potential transition to PI usually coincide with the age at which women have children, meaning this is often cited as the major factor. Many of the women I talked to either intended to or were already combining a science career with family life, with those at an early career stage often selecting female scientists with families as role models. Some returning mothers felt academia offered greater flexibility than other jobs. They were generally positive about maternity provision in UK universities and mentioned several other beneficial initiatives such as funding to cover technical support during maternity leave, parental support groups and career re-entry fellowships, although awareness of their availability could be increased. Nevertheless, they also acknowledged there were challenges. The instability of short-term contracts was a particular worry - moving jobs and potentially location every few years is not easy to combine with childcare, schooling or a partner’s stable position. Those not originally from the UK had the added concerns of visas. For some women who were planning to leave academia, lack of job security was the major reason. Others felt that successive breaks for maternity leave and subsequently working part time had made them less competitive in the field, particularly for making the step to PI.

Another theme that emerged was that the scientific structure rewards more typically ‘male’ characteristics and the dominance of men in decision-making positions reinforces this culture. This is a tricky topic that involves making generalisations-they clearly do not apply to all individuals. At every stage of a science career it is necessary to sell yourself and your work, whether in papers, presentations or interviews. Many people thought that, in general, men had more confidence and were better at self-promotion, whilst women tended to be more realistic or even self-critical. PIs with experience as reviewers and editors observed that men were more likely to challenge the editorial decisions that can make or break a paper, potentially gaining a crucial advantage for their CV. Likewise, men were more inclined to negotiate for a better pay or startup package. Women were more frequently described as compassionate and considerate of their colleagues and although this sounds positive, this could also make women more vulnerable to extra demands on their time, taking away from the personal focus that could give them a competitive edge. It could also mean that they were less likely to make their voices heard. Even senior women felt that at times they had to overemphasise their leadership to colleagues to be taken as seriously as a male counterpart. On the other hand, if women displayed more typically ‘male’ attributes they felt they were more negatively viewed than men with the same characteristics and one woman had even been told that female bosses were simply unlikeable.

The difference in perception of men and women highlights the problem of unconscious bias, which influences a person’s judgement without them being fully aware of it. Unconscious biases are influenced by personal background and experiences, as well as societal and cultural expectations. In the case of gender and recruitment, some studies have shown that applications with a male name are rated more highly than the identical application presented with a female name (Moss-Racusin et al 2012). In one example of unconscious bias in action a woman told me of a male colleague who addressed a question about a grant only to the other men in the group, not realising she had in fact recently been a recipient. Another example concerned a male journalist who, when writing a news feature on a paper co-authored by a male and female, repeatedly referred only to the man as the author, quoting ‘his’ rather than ‘their’ work. Cases such as these could be rectified, but it is not always easy to identify if and how unconscious bias has influenced a decision-making process.

These and several other factors can contribute to the ‘leaky pipeline’, but the important question is what can we do to combat it? Some aspects need to be addressed in wider society, such as encouraging men to take up shared parental leave, expecting a more balanced gender contribution in both work and family spheres and tackling unconscious bias. Nevertheless, many changes can be made at the institutional level, from the small ones such as supplying training in confidence and negotiation skills or establishing peer support and mentoring networks, to the large changes such as providing affordable childcare onsite, which would have significant impact on the retention of women. In the wider community, we must ensure women are well represented on panels. As PIs are also teachers and managers we should place greater value on people skills and community responsibilities. Journals must resist challenges from pushy authors and the field as whole should reduce its reliance on impact factors. More radically, we could reject the relentless upward career trajectory that inevitably means many will fall off the ladder, accepting that some people do not wish to swap the bench for the boardroom and appreciating these experienced hands in the lab. Providing stable staff scientist positions would be an excellent start. Some government research institutes employ permanent scientific staff at all levels, despite receiving the majority of their funding from the same fixed-term grants as academic institutions. Reducing job insecurity would retain many talented scientists, not least those with family responsibilities. We could also create more flexible and diverse opportunities - one inspiring woman I spoke to had forged a non-traditional role in project coordination and public engagement within academia.

There is still much to do to achieve gender equality in science, and whilst progress is being made it is only by encouraging diversity of all kinds that we will unlock the potential of women and other underrepresented groups to the benefit of the whole scientific community.


Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favour male students. PNAS 109(41)

Further Reading

Grogan KE (2019) How the entire scientific community can confront gender bias in the workplace. Nature Ecology & Evolution 3:3-6

Nature collections-‘Achieving diversity in science’ (https://www.nature.com/collections/qsgnpdtgbr)

Nature Cell Biology Focus – ‘Women in Science’ (https://www.nature.com/collections/fyfvkbpslf/content/nature-cell-biology-turning-points)

Sheryl Sandberg ‘Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead’

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