From Lab Bench To Children’s Bedside – The Persistent Gender Gap In Science

Increasing numbers of women study science – over half of Wellcome Trust-funded PhD studentships are now awarded to women. But women are still dramatically underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, and spectacularly so in leadership roles.

In academic medicine in the US and the UK, only 15-20% of tenured professors, departmental chairs, and senior scientific fellowship recipients are female. Interestingly, this is largely due to fewer women applying for senior level positions, rather than a bias by the awarding bodies. And when women do apply, they generally write less ambitious proposals and ask for less funding.

So, if more young women now choose to study science, why do fewer women than men pursue high-level leadership roles in science?

The answer undoubtedly lies in the pressures of family life on women.

“Acradabadra! I turn you in to the perfect mummy!” Several years ago, one of our then 4-year old twin daughters was waving a magic wand at me.
“What does the perfect mummy do?” I asked.
“Cleans the house, makes us food, picks us up from school…” she replied.
“What about the perfect daddy?”
“Goes to work, plays with us….”

Our daughters were born in the last year of my PhD. I had returned to work when they were 6-months, written my thesis and was training in clinical haematology. At the time of this conversation, I was working 12-hour days and doing frequent night shifts on a bone marrow transplant unit, and in my “spare time” preparing for exams. In my mind, I never cleaned the house, hated cooking, and only collected them from school once or twice a week. My daughters knew I was a doctor and a scientist, and I had taken it for granted that they would automatically appreciate the contribution of women, and mothers, in the workplace.

Like most professional mothers, I then did – and still do, significantly more than half of childcare and household admin.

My husband – a wonderfully engaged and loving father – has always sought to share parenting and support my career. We shared parental leave when our son was born last year. For 2 years he also took our girls to his workplace nursery so that I could work long days in the hospital – but it was me they saw every morning, frantically making everyone breakfast and getting everyone dressed and packed for school.

In the US, working women spend twice as much time as men cooking, and three times as much time doing laundry each day. Among scientists with dependent children, the majority of women, but only 5% of men, report having the main responsibility for childcare.

Leadership roles in academic science are very demanding, comparatively poorly paid and have high insecurity. Worse, this is coupled with the incredible cost of childcare, especially in the US. For the last 2 years, I’ve had the fantastic opportunity to do a visiting fellowship at the National Human Genome Research Institute in the NIH, USA. But despite significant financial assistance from my husband’s employers for the re-location, one daycare place for our son and 9-hours of after-school babysitting for our daughters has cost us over $42,000, this year alone.

The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award is totally unique in that it recognizes that what many women need to progress in their careers is flexible funding. Even in families like ours, with two working parents and significant “co-parenting”, the physical and mental burden of childcare still unfairly falls on women.

It is no surprise then that women who have dependent children are less likely than their male colleagues to seek demanding leadership positions in science, less likely to pursue work-related travel, and more likely to tailor their work patterns to fit in with childcare.

Part of my L’Oréal-UNESCO award will fund key experiments, enabling me to directly visualize how key genes are being expressed in individual bone marrow cells in a rare but fatal form of blood cancer. I will also now be able to maximize my working day productivity with additional childcare and I will travel to international conferences and collaborator meetings, and thereby compete more fairly with my male counterparts when I look to establish my own independent research group.

Not only does inequality in the home prevent women from competing fairly in the workplace, it also impedes societal change for the next generation

Until my daughter enlightened me with her magic wand, I had failed to appreciate that my role at work was invisible, and therefore unimaginable, to our children. All that matters to them are our roles and behaviours when children do see us. Gender identities are formed young, and therefore gender equality in the home must be visible to our children.

If we truly want our daughters to have futures unburdened by gender stereotypes, and our sons to choose to be co-parenting fathers, then we must continue to work harder to avoid gender bias both in the workplace and in our homes. Diversity and equality in the workplace and in the home is essential for innovation and progress, especially in science.

Dr Bethan Psaila is a Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Fellow in the MRC-Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford

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