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Why we need more women at the top of science

Irene Chong credit royal marsden embed

Clinician Scientist Dr Irene Chong. Credit Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust

What do you think a scientist looks like? Are they old or young? Male or female? A study of people from 34 countries around the world found that 70% thought of a scientist as a man, while research last year found that a quarter of people can’t name a single famous female scientist, either living or dead.

The impression might be that science is a man’s world, but in fact in cancer research some of the biggest and most important discoveries have been made by women. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her research into radiation, and conducted the first studies into treating tumours with X-rays, while Rosalind Franklin played a crucial role in the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.

These women were trailblazers who made huge contributions to cancer research, and without their discoveries we might not be able to understand or treat cancer with the skill and precision we do today. Their example has led the way for women in science, but there is still more to do.

At The Institute of Cancer Research, London, women represent half of our students and postdoctoral researchers, but less than a third of our faculty.

Gender imbalance bad for research as well as careers

Senior ICR scientists like Professor Bissan Al-Lazkani, Head of Data Science, and Professor Emma Hall, Deputy Director of the Clinical Trials and Statistics Unit, do fantastic work raising the public profile of our female researchers. But the loss of women from scientific careers at more senior levels is seen throughout academic science in the UK and beyond.

This gender imbalance isn’t just bad for women’s scientific careers – it can also have a detrimental impact on research. A report from the UK parliament’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee noted that the absence of women in research “has resulted in science having more evidence for men than for women, and in the ‘male’ being accepted as the norm in study design”.

In most anatomy books, the majority of images are of a man’s body. Calculations for radiation dosage are based on an absorption model of a middle-aged man, which could have serious implications for cancer research and treatment.

These examples highlight the need for a woman’s perspective in science. And more straightforwardly, if talented women are leaving scientific careers then research organisations like the ICR are missing out on their contribution and making do with a restricted pool of high-quality researchers. It is very important to the ICR that women are represented at all levels of our scientific research.

Athena SWAN initiative

Equality of opportunity is a key objective for the ICR and underpins our aim to be the employer of choice for those working in cancer research.

The ICR is striving to ensure all researchers have the same opportunities to develop their scientific careers, regardless of gender. We were the first research institution in the UK to be part of the Athena SWAN initiative to promote women in science, which we’ve been involved with since 2009.

Athena SWAN is a national initiative, supported by the Government and the leading scientific societies, which recognises that women are a vital part of the scientific workforce – but are under-represented in senior positions. It is committed to advancing women’s careers in higher education and research, and also aims to improve the working environment for everyone.

Dr Vanessa Mckean, the ICR’s Athena SWAN coordinator, says: “I work on Athena SWAN because I want all talented researchers to have the same opportunities to develop their careers in academic science and medicine.

“At the ICR, we need to make the most of all available talent in the battle against cancer – if you are losing 50% of your workforce then you aren’t just losing talented researchers, you’re losing the ideas that could lead to the next breakthrough in cancer research. I believe that the actions we take to support women here will help the ICR attract and retain the best scientists.”

The ICR currently holds a silver Athena SWAN award and we have our eyes on getting gold status.

Improving working conditions

We’re supporting women’s careers by providing an environment that balances the demands of cutting-edge science with family and other responsibilities, and we have already introduced exciting initiatives to improve working conditions for both men and women.

The ICR has a very active parents’ network, and has started a parent buddy scheme, to provide new and expecting parents with support from colleagues. Maternity coaching, to assist in planning maternity leave and returning to research, is available to all postdoctoral researchers and team leaders.

We have set up the Women in Science Network as a forum for networking, mentoring and training our female academics, and we’re making it easier for researchers working part-time to progress in their careers.

And this year we’re sponsoring four places on the Aurora Women in Leadership programme, which encourages women in academic and professional roles to think of themselves as leaders, and to develop their leadership skills through workshops and mentoring.

'Still challenges to overcome'

Professor Caroline Springer, former Co-chair of the ICR’s Athena SWAN Silver Steering Group, commented: “Through Athena SWAN the ICR's campaign for equality in science is putting in place the support to help women achieve their full potential.

“We have more representation of women at senior levels, better structures for mentoring our researchers and more understanding within the ICR of the issues facing women. There are still challenges to overcome but the changes we have implemented are moving in the right direction.”

Improving opportunities for women in science will benefit all of us. By examining how we recruit, promote and nurture our researchers and by taking actions to address problems, we will attract and retain the best scientists, helping us in our mission to make the discoveries that defeat cancer.

The public perception may still be that scientists are generally male, but as today’s female researchers become tomorrow’s scientific leaders, that should change.


This post was updated on 2017-11-13 to reflect our Athena SWAN silver status and that Professor Caroline Springer no longer works at the ICR.


Athena SWAN
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