Rosalind Franklin and Ada Lovelace – among the great scientists who have paved the way for Women in STEM. But whilst these names and their passion for research may inspire women to pursue careers in the sector, there is a widespread issue in supporting women throughout their development in scientific roles.
65% of early career researchers in biomedical sciences are female, yet a huge drop off rate is reported when looking at progression to professor level with less than one in five biomedical professor positions across the research sector currently held by women.
I am fortunate to be able to pursue my passion for science in my role as Reader in Renal Sciences and Honorary Consultant Nephrologist at Kings College London and King’s College Hospital, whilst still having the flexibility to focus on my family, whenever they need me. It’s very hard work, but also enormously rewarding.
However, developing a career in science as a female is not without its challenges. Unfortunately, I think some work place processes discriminate against female employees in a completely unintentional way. For example, setting up decision-making meetings at 8am when female colleagues are on the school run – so it’s harder to get involved – undoubtedly having an impact on career progression somewhere along the line.
Although I’ve always had faith in the system and have never personally felt discriminated against, I have occasionally witnessed attitudes towards colleagues change when they return to work part time after having children. Assumptions have been made about part time workers’ commitments to their jobs and change in their personal priorities, which have effectively marginalised them from being full members of the team. Attitudes like this are not appropriate, and we are working hard to discourage them through programmes such as Athena SWAN charter, run by the Equality Challenge Unit.
I strongly believe we need to continue to work hard to eradicate all issues surrounding gender equality in the sector and to open up more opportunities for women across STEM based industries. There is clearly a disconnect between those entering scientific professions at entry level, and those progressing into more senior roles, so it’s important that organisations look at their data to understand where the issues may lie and, more importantly, what can be done to address them.
This month, Kidney Research UK, who are pleased to report a 50/50 split of male and female researchers it funds, launched a Women in Science campaign. The campaign champions all the incredible female researchers we currently have working across the industry, with an aim to inspire the next generation of girls hoping to pursue careers in science.
Inspiration derives from passion and people, and I believe that mentoring is essential in supporting female research Scientists. I have had a series of influential mentors throughout my career but in the early days all my mentors were men, as there just weren’t many women to choose from. It would have been nice to have had strong female characters to look up to, who perhaps had been through some of the same things as me.
I have been interested in science for as long as I can remember but it was one, unexpected, comment in particular which I think drove me to turn my passion into a career. This was when my physics teacher said to me: ‘girls really only do Physics A-Level as they know they will be in a class full of boys’.
It turns out that this comment only made me more determined to show my teacher, and everyone else, that I was going to do things differently, but it’s important to remember that young girls can be very impressionable and it’s vital that they have a solid support network in place and lots of great role models to help them reach their potential.
I’ve been lucky to have a fantastic network of people around me throughout my career including my husband, mentors, colleagues, and our nanny who provided invaluable and reliable childcare for 14 years.
These factors undoubtedly helped me to shape my career and enabled me to pursue something I absolutely love. My research studies are focused on the development of renal fibrosis – the main underlying cause of kidney failure – and I hope that one day soon this work will lead to the development of new drugs which will make Chronic Kidney Disease a treatable condition.
My hope is that with that with the ongoing steps being taken to resolve gender equality issues within the science industry, plus people such as myself speaking out to share personal experiences, more and more women will feel empowered and confident enough to forge a career within the industry – regardless of the hurdles which may lie ahead.
Kidney Research UK is the leading UK charity committed to developing treatments, patient information and raising vital public awareness to help save lives. www.kidneyresearchuk.org