When it comes to closing the gender gap, Canadian scientists have observed somewhat reasonable progress being undone by steps taken in the opposite direction. The last decade has seen signs of encouragement for the advancement of females being treated as equals in the field of science. This was initially evidenced by a two-fold increase in female Canada Research Chairs, but soon after spoiled by the complete absence of female awardees for the prestigious Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, which also featured a severe dearth of female candidates on the shortlist(1).


Following these statistics, the federal government commissioned a report by the Council of Canadian Academics, which aimed to investigate the potential cause of the imbalance, and to elucidate obstacles faced by female scientists as a whole. While the report found Canada to be lacking in terms of promoting gender equity for various reasons, another article attributed the gender disparity to be a result of women choosing alternative career paths due to a purported ‘lack of interest’ in the sciences(2). Another hypothesis could be that women forgo advancements in their careers in order to devote time to raising a family. These controversial claims sparked discussion between several professors in the University of Toronto’s Department of Immunology. With support from Trinity College, they hosted a roundtable discussion titled “Work-Life Balance and Career Trajectories for Women in Science.”

The session was held on February 14, 2013, and focused on the challenges faced by female faculty members from the 1970s to present day. Particular emphasis was placed on determining how these scientists were able to balance family life and their personal relationships while achieving a successful career in science. Contrary to suggestions that women prefer career paths that are more conducive to having a family, Dr. Jennifer Gommerman echoed other panellists in stating that work-life balance is not gender specific. While granting maternity leave on platforms such as Common CV would be an important step towards equality, the assertion that women are less likely to choose science due to family life is an oversimplification of the complicating factors and obstacles that women face in science. Dr. Tania Watts further highlighted that “many of the concerns ranging from daycare to personal insecurity are issues also shared by modern men. Higher positions in science involve a flexibility and balance that is in fact ideal for women who are searching for a career that suits family life.”

A significant part of the discussion expounded the experiences of the scientists during maternity leave. Many of the faculty pointed out the improvements the department has made to reach its current state, allowing up to thirty weeks of parental leave for its faculty members. It was also noted that the principal investigators (PIs) seldom took the entire period of time off, and would often continue to write grants and papers to minimize dips in productivity during their leave. Despite this, the sex-specific effects of maternity on careers in research can still be observed: reports show that female postdoctoral fellows who become parents are twice as likely to abandon careers in research as their male counterparts(3). Aside from taking basic measures such as increasing family services and childcare facilities, institutions would do well to note the gaps resulting from maternity leave and extend progress deadlines such as tenure clocks accordingly. Finally, while some PIs in the department are accommodating of students and postdoctoral fellows who take time off for maternity leave, not all funding agencies responsible for grants and fellowships have implemented measures to account for this fundamental and basic need. In many cases, if the funding agency does not have provisions for parental leave, the terms of the leave, including pay and duration, are negotiated with, and at the discretion of, the PI.

The scarcity of females in decision-making positions and scientific advisory boards (SABs) in the private sector is another significant issue that has been brought to light over the past few years. While females occupy up to 30% of faculty positions across scientific disciplines, a recent study by MIT researcher Nancy Hopkins shows that these same scientists occupy only 5% of founders and SAB members of biotechnology companies(4). Hopkins also reports that from a list of 100 scientists who had received funding from a Massachusetts based venture-capital firm, only one was female. As for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in Canada, Dr. Eleanor Fish suggests that a quick scan of the private sector reveals a similar underrepresentation of women in senior executive positions. Fish believes that the disparity “is not because of the lack of outstanding talent and competency among women in science; more a reticence on the part of the scientific establishment – the majority of whom are men in positions of authority and seniority, to promote women.” Considering the fact that most academics join SABs approximately two decades after receiving their PhDs, it is safe to suggest that lack of invitation rather than family responsibilities serve as the main reason for the shocking disparity observed in the private sector. To this effect, Watts and Fish believe that training women earlier for leadership positions, combined with profiling and promoting junior female colleagues where appropriate are two means of improving these statistics for the future.

Science, by principle, is meant to be progressive. While there has already been a relative paradigm shift towards gender equality, much still needs to be done to accelerate the closing of the ever-present gap in a way that will ensure sustainability. Education about the existence of the imbalance would be a start. Implementing policies to ensure gender equality in hiring and support for researchers, and transparent reporting of gender equality in funding and hiring, similar to the Research Oriented Standards on Gender Equality guidelines, as adopted by the German Research Foundation (DFG), could also lead to a significant increase in the number of new female professors in various scientific disciplines and executive positions(5). Finally, mentorship, support programs and open discussion similar to that held at Trinity College, along with family-friendly policies starting at the graduate level, and more transparency in recruitment of scientists, would certainly serve as a positive step towards achieving gender balance in the sciences.

-by Payam Zarin, Leesa Pennell, Polly Karpazis and Charles Tran

1. Bradshaw, J. (2012/11/21). Female Academics Excluded From Recognition and Equal Pay: Study. The Globe and Mail, Education.
2. Wente, M. (2012/11/23). Gender Parity Trumps Excellence in Science? The Globe and Mail, Commentary.
3. Goulden, M. Frasch, K. & Mason, M.A. Staying Competitive (Center for American Progress, 2009).
4. McCook, A. (2013) Women in Biotechnology: barred from the boardroom. Nature 495, 25-27.
5. Muhlenbruch, B. Jochimsen , M.A. (2013). Only wholesale reform will bring equality. Nature 495, 40-42.

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4 thoughts on “Closing the Gender Gap for Women in Science

  1. Nicely written article.

    Dr. Watts is quoted as saying, “Higher positions in science involve a flexibility and balance that is in fact ideal for women who are searching for a career that suits family life”. Unfortunately I do not think the same could be claimed of the ‘lower’ positions in science…..graduate students, postdocs, and junior investigators who still do substantial benchwork. There are very few examples of female PIs who attain senior (and importantly, secure) positions when they are 29 or younger. This means that few, if any, women in science can expect to have the freedom and flexibility that Dr. Watts describes while they are the average age of first-time Canadian mothers.

    ref: http://business.financialpost.com/2012/07/17/baby-boom-or-bust/

    1. I absolutely agree with you, Janet! That’s all I really wanted to say, I kind of wish the reply button was more like Facebook’s “like” button.

      Thanks for the link to that article too. 🙂

  2. Congratulations to the authors of this excellent article. This is an issue that is near and dear to my heart as many of you know. The issue that Janet brings up is really important, and it isn’t just benchwork at the more junior level, new PIs also need to be in the lab training their first people and working around the clock to obtain grants and get everything going. Having a 3 yr old and an infant my second year as a PI put me behind in a way I still haven’t recovered from. Most of the female faculty I know who are successful had their careers established before having children, or had a primary caretaker at home (live in nanny, stay at home dad) to take on the brunt of the responsibilities. That said, I think there are solutions and your tackling this problem is a necessary start. I’m really encouraged by the balance and fairness and fact-based approach of this article. Keep up the good work!

  3. Thank you for the kind comments and more importantly the discussion. It is much appreciated!
    I agree completely that it is nearly impossible as a young scientist to become established to a level where one can comfortably balance one’s career with starting and caring for a family. I find that research facilities in the United States are perhaps more conscious of this issue and have more resources such as childcare facilities available to the staff. In addition to physical resources, there also needs to be greater understanding shown by funding agencies.
    Hopefully we can organize another event to further discuss equality in science and perhaps come up with more concrete ideas for progress.

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