Photographer: John Nicholson

Why don’t we have more female scientists in leadership roles?

Late last year, this question was brought into sharp focus again for me when we celebrated Cancer Grand Challenges’ Professor Carolyn Bertozzi receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

It was a momentous achievement that we are hugely proud of but Carolyn, being only the 60th woman out of more than 900 recipients in Nobel’s history, was a stark reminder of the relatively small number of women in the top echelons of science.

It is a huge challenge that very rarely makes the headlines, but it is a pressing issue and one we need to urgently address around the world.

A 2015 UNESCO Science Report highlighted the issue, depicting in dry statistical detail a very real problem – the slow ‘leakage’ of female researchers out of science.

According to the report, around the world women are actively pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees and even outnumber men at these levels, representing 53% of graduates.

However, at PhD level this drops to 43%, and the gap widens even further at researcher level where women only account for 28.4% of researchers globally.

But what is causing this ‘leaky’ pipeline of scientific talent?

We know that career barriers can manifest from an early age, such as gender bias in early education. Gender stereotypes and male-dominated working environments also play a role.

As a Chief Executive myself and being the first in my family fortunate enough to get a university education, I understand the importance of good female role models.

But there is sparse representation of women in more senior roles in science and there is a need for mentors to support those starting out in the field.

As well as this, women are more likely to be the primary carer, not only for young children but also for ill members of their family.

The unavoidable drop in productivity that women in research experience when starting a family, usually measured as the number of papers published, has a detrimental impact on grant success rates, which largely depend on a strong publication record.

Research has shown that this all boils down to ‘cumulative disadvantage’.

This is the notion that scientists who have previously been successful, for example, in securing funding, are more likely to succeed again.

With studies showing that men are more likely to be awarded research grants, and be awarded grants of higher value than women, it is not hard to see how the self-perpetuating cycle of women repeatedly losing out can continue.

We also need to consider intersectionality and appreciate that not all women will be impacted equally by these hurdles.

People from ethnic minority backgrounds, for example, often face additional barriers such as racial stereotyping and microaggressions.

And women from ethnic minority backgrounds face a particularly challenging road into academia, with women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds making up only 2.7% of UK professors in 2020/21.

Many people at the charity know that I am always super keen to celebrate Cancer Research UK’s female science pioneers. As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations, we’ve been highlighting some of the significant discoveries that have been made by female researchers through our cancer research pioneers series.

We also have many women in science today whose contribution we must celebrate. Last year, Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald won our Cancer Research Horizon’s Impact Recognition Award for her outstanding contributions to the field of oncology through her innovation of the Cytosponge.

We need hundreds, if not thousands, more Rebeccas and Carolyns and we need to support the fabulous women scientists coming up the ranks to help them to fulfil their potential if we are to accelerate progress to beat cancer for everybody.

At Cancer Research UK we are addressing these challenges head on. In 2021 we launched our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy, which outlines our commitments and sets out the immediate actions that we will take to accelerate progress and change.

As part of this we’ve committed to reviewing and improving our funding policies to minimise the potential for unconscious bias, this includes rolling out our new ‘Guide to Assessing Grant Applications’ to our funding committees and new briefings for committee chairs with specific guidance on mitigating unconscious bias.

We’re also implementing targeted support for ethnic minority researchers by providing dedicated career support initiatives including mentoring and leadership programmes. We hope that by implementing measures such as these we can ensure equal grant success rates for researchers, regardless of background.

We’ve also set up additional programmes to improve the diversity of people in research. Our successful Women of Influence programme pairs exceptional scientists with leading businesswomen to provide early career researchers with support from outside of academia at a critical time in their development.

Last year, we also held our inaugural Black in Cancer conference, which brought scientists across the globe together to celebrate, collaborate and showcase Black excellence in cancer research and medicine.

Speakers and delegates at that conference highlighted the need for research to be more representative. We know that cancer doesn’t affect everyone equally, so, to ensure that everyone has access to and receives the same quality of care, it’s important that our workforce is also representative of the populations we serve. As speaker Onyinye Balogun beautifully stated at the conference, “when you improve things for minoritised populations, things get better for everyone.”

As Cancer Research UK we need to know whether we’re making progress in improving the diversity of our highly valued research community. We have stretching targets that we’ll regularly monitor and publish how we’re doing.

We’re unafraid to try new ways to achieve our goals. Today’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science is an opportunity for us all to reflect on the steps we’ve taken to celebrate and support women in science at Cancer Research UK. It is also a good time to reflect on how we must go further and faster if we are to make sure beating cancer means beating cancer for everyone.

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