Where are all the women in life sciences?

Last week we launched our new top 100 list of the most influential life scientists on Twitter (link is external). Social media is now recognised as key in raising the profile of science and promoting it to a wider audience in real time. The top 100 list raised a lot of interest and many of you were happy to be included. Jonathan Eisen tweeted the following in response to finding out that he is currently topping the leaderboard:

Tweet screenshot

However, some people started to question the number of women that featured  in the list. For example: 

Tweet screenshot 2

It’s a good question. On our initial list women made up just over a quarter of the top 100 life sciences Twitter influencers. There are a number of possible reasons that may explain this gender gap:

  1. Our list was put together based on raw Twitter metrics that analyse engagement (such as followers, replies, retweets and likes), so while there may well be many more incredible female researchers working in the field, their engagement with Twitter might not have been picked up. 
  2. We made every effort to include as many names as possible in the list, but the field of life sciences is incredibly broad and it’s entirely possible our first sweep of Twitter wasn’t totally accurate. Many of you have recommended names for inclusion in subsequent updates of the list, which is great! The list will be updated every week and we hope it will evolve to be more representative of Twitter influencers from the life sciences community.
  3. We know there are less women than men working in life sciences, so perhaps this list reflects the gender gap seen in the research field itself?

Twitter top 100

At undergraduate level biology is a female dominated subject. The gender split is 50/50 for those studying for PhD’s. Yet by postdoc level the number of women starts to drop off with 38% of postdoc positions taken up by women. This drops even further – with women filling only 18% of professorships.

It has been clearly shown again (link is external) and again (link is external) that women pay a price for having children, and the earlier and less established they are in their careers the higher this price is. Many women give birth during the critical early years of their careers when they would typically postdoc and this takes time away from the project, reduces the number and impact of publications and many find the time commitment to the lab doesn’t tally with their family responsibilities – the bulk of which still fall to the female. Because women take time off to care for their families they suffer another penalty in retirement. Even though men and women retire around the same age, women’s salaries are generally 29% lower. For women, each child reduces her pay, mostly as a cumulative effect from time and money lost earlier in their careers, but there is no such penalty for men.

Even women without children can suffer some prejudice. One study (link is external) in the US showed that male lab leaders are less likely than their female counterparts to hire women into postdoc positions. Women make up 46% of the postdocs in groups led by women, but they account for 36% of the postdocs in groups led by men. This gender bias increases even further in the top research labs, considered to be where the Lab Head has won a prestigious prize or become a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In a male-led top research group only 31% of postdocs were female. This is only a small drop in the percentage of females in male-led top labs compared to normal labs, but the impact on your CV of working in these labs is important and promotes more males into higher positions, who will hire more men and the gender gap continues.

So what can be done to correct this and promote women in STEM? Paid family leave for both parents, a flexible workplace, a flexible career track, a career re-entry scheme and childcare assistance would all potentially help to retain women in science. Schemes do exist that offer increased flexibility in working arrangements, such as the Royal Society’s Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship (link is external) in the UK. There are also opportunities such as the Wellcome trust (link is external)and NIH career re-entry (link is external) awards to return to science following a career break. Unfortunately in an era where science budgets are being squeezed there aren’t enough of these around to make a significant impact, and often the perception of these schemes (link is external) is not as great as their standard career track counterparts. Work is being done to retain women in STEM subjects, but more is needed.