Science gender equality

Science gender equality: is encouraging women to apply enough?

Laura Mariotti

Laura Mariotti

Laura is originally from France and Belgium, and has spent most of her life in Luxembourg and the UK. She studied biochemistry at University College London and obtained her PhD in structural biology. She moved to Switzerland for her postdoc in cancer research. She enjoys talking about science and scientific careers at public engagement events and has a strong interest in science policy – how to address today’s societal challenges using science and technology. Outside of work, she loves yoga, sailing and travelling with her family.

Excellence in science and gender balance are paired, yet women are under-represented in top science jobs. Increasing numbers of science-related job advertisements encourage women to apply. Although a seemingly good initiative to promote gender equality in science, does it really achieve this aim?
Gender balance in any industry generates more economic opportunities (1, 2). It increases the diversity of experiences, expertise and viewpoints within a team, which in turn leads to new ideas and stronger decisions. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science from 2010 to 2014, warned that to build Europe’s research capacity and boost innovation, we need policies ‘to remedy a waste of talent which has already lasted too long’ and keep talented women and men in research and innovation (1).

In the latest She Figures published in 2018 by the European Commission (2), what is known as the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon, in which women are on average over-represented at the Bachelor’s and Master’s level but under-represented in the next phases of a typical academic career, still holds true. Although the gender gap among doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers across all academic fields is narrowing, due to the number of women doctoral graduates increasing at a faster rate than men, the progress is slower in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). In 2016, women represented around 40% of STEM doctoral graduates and postdoctoral researchers, but only 28% of mid-career scientists and 15% of senior researchers.

Science gender equality
Cartoon @ Pauline Mariotti for Culturico (Copyright)

To counteract this trend, international networks and organisations supporting scientific careers have made gender equality one of their top priorities. Eight years ago, the European Commission identified five ways to tackle gender imbalance in research and innovation in Europe (1). These included promoting decision-making transparency and fairness in performance evaluation, diminishing unconscious bias using peer-review assessments, integrating gender/sex analysis in the research outputs and removing the gender pay gap still present in some EU states (1). Later they transformed these five challenges into specific Horizon 2020 objectives: integrating gender/sex analysis in research and innovation content and achieving gender balance in both decision making and in research teams at all career levels. These initiatives are becoming more widespread across funding schemes, institutes and universities. For example, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), which is Switzerland’s leading research funding organisation, has numerous initiatives to tackle the under-representation of women in science, including the PRIMA grant aimed at women researchers and clinical scientists. Although excellence should be independent of gender, such schemes are needed in the short term to close the gender gap. Other SNSF fellowships, and European ones such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) and EMBO Long-Term Fellowships for post-doctoral researchers, allow part-time work, parental leave and other benefits irrespective of gender. With such initiatives, MSCA has increased its women applicants to 40% in the last few years. Similarly, the number of women applying to European Research Council grants, which promote early and late career stages in research, has also steadily increased since 2014, to an average of 30% in 2017.

In parallel to these initiatives, the sentence ‘women are encouraged to apply’ is increasingly seen in advertisements for postdocs, team leader positions, science coordinator/officer and other managerial roles. This encouragement is certainly welcomed, but after years of efforts toward gender equality in science, is this enough? Knowing that the recruitment process will be fair is of course reassuring. But whether an interested candidate applies depends on many other, usually personal, factors. Parenthood is, unsurprisingly, a key factor – a recent, eight-year study showed that half of mothers and a quarter of fathers leave STEM careers after the birth of their first child (3). If both partners work in science, which is the case for 83% of women scientists in the US, coordinating two careers can also be challenging, especially as mobility is still a key aspect of career progression. Other factors influencing the decision to apply likely include location, pay and working conditions.

Instead of welcoming women to apply, research institutions might be more successful at attracting women applicants if their job advertisements included a sentence or two on the career initiatives they have implemented. These could include longer parental leave for both parents, flexible working arrangements (in terms of hours and part-time options), pausing deadlines such as the tenure clock for women and men during periods of care for children or elderly parents, which already happens in some US universities, policies on working overtime and doing home-office, and clearly defined progression steps. Currently, these conditions might only be discussed later during interview stages, but I believe that addressing some of these points up front – even briefly – would be a more effective way to encourage more women to apply.


Laura Mariotti



  1. European Commission, “Structural change in research institutions”, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2012.
  2. European Commission, “She figures 2018”, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2019.
  3. Cech, A. E. & Blair-Loy, M., “The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019.
Received: 22.04.20, Ready: 17.05.20, Editors: Anna K. Stelling-Germani, Robert Ganley

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One thought on “Science gender equality: is encouraging women to apply enough?

  1. Very interesting article, Laura! Is there any study that characterised how many women drop out of academia because of their personal choice due to motherhood? I think about those young mothers that could actually pursue academic career but don’t, because of their preferences towards other working environments – something only mildly related to gender imbalance, from a numerical perspective.

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