Careers in the Life Sciences: Gender Gap, Raising Children, and Family-Friendly Policies

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

For the past few decades, the “scientific” gender gap has been closing a little at a time, allowing some of the many female scientists to advance in their career and obtain positions that were once reserved mostly for their male counterparts. However, there are still too many women that, despite working tirelessly to make scientific discoveries and inspiring others to follow in their footsteps, experience delays and challenges in moving up.

Between 1969 and 2009, the percentage of doctorates awarded to women in the life sciences increased from 15% to 52% in the U.S. There is no doubt that—at the doctoral level—there have been considerable gains. Yet, the “scientific” gender gap shows up at the faculty level, with only 36% of female assistant professors and 18% of female full professors in biology-related fields. One of the many worrisome results of this gap is that the significant scientific potential present in the pool of doctoral trainees is lost along the way.

What are the reasons at the basis of the “scientific” gender gap? One of them is an usual culprit: the very famous (or infamous) family/work balance, which is not yet adequately addressed. A survey published in 2008 by the Royal Society of Chemistry in London found that many U.K. chemistry students viewed research as a rigorous endeavor incompatible with the time and effort needed to raise a family. While the demands of academic research seem equally intimidating to male and female scientists, it is mostly women that carry the weight of the perceived need to choose between a career as a scientist and the desire to raise a family.

To the women in the sciences, recent sound advice on the matter comes from France A. Córdova, Director of the National Science Foundation. In an article published in the journal Science, Córdova says: “Speaking of children, don’t fret about when or whether to have them. You will know. I’ve seen scientists have children when they were still graduate students, and others (like me) when they were full professors and department chairs. You will survive no matter what, and so will your children.”

To address concerns related to the issue of raising a family, many academic research institutions are establishing family-friendly policies. In 2009, Douglas Hilton, Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, pledged to improve gender balance at his institution. He implemented changes that, five years later, yielded a reasonable level of improvement. He describes the steps that were taken in an article published in the journal Nature. What are some of these steps? First, women in their postdoctoral period were asked for their ideas. As a result, the institution holds all important meetings within school hours, so that researchers with child-care duties can attend. It also established a dedicated office with hot-desks and an adjoining room in which small children can play and older children can do homework or watch television under the supervision of their parents. In addition, the institution pays for female scientists to attend conferences, both locally and abroad, and take with them children along with someone that takes care of the children. More interesting and likely fruitful changes are on the way.

In the same article, Hilton makes a very important point. He says: “We know that these steps have made a difference. Some are expensive, but the ‘my-institute-has-no-money’ argument is rarely a good excuse for inaction. Every institution has some discretionary money and can choose to spend it in these ways rather than, say, on over-generous recruitment packages for well-established (usually male) scientists.”

If similar and additional changes were implemented in more research institutions, women in the life sciences—and not only—could wholeheartedly follow the final advice given by Córdova in the Science article mentioned above: “Don’t fear decisions; embrace them. They allow you to explore new ideas and places. They mark the pathways that make your journey unique. Your choices will define you, so my last piece of advice is simple: Be yourself. You can’t make a bad choice if you remain true to yourself.”

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. The article about Douglas Hilton brings up such an important topic. I think that it is imperative that we extend awareness of gender bias, discrimination, and the struggles that women go through in STEM. These biases can be so insidiously subtle, affecting women and men alike, that educating both sexes in the STEM fields is necessary and vital for men and women coming up now.
    I spoke with someone recently about the struggles women face in STEM and was told that there was a male professor that would never encourage his female students to go for their PhD. He would instead point them in the direction of just obtaining a Master’s degree. There was another professor that would tell his female students that their brains are not wired for math and physics and would tell them that they should consider another field of study and that the struggle was just not worth it. I was also told about a female student that went for advisement and was told that she should consider teaching instead of spending so much time getting a doctorate degree. There are also countless other ways that women face these subtle discriminations by being excluded from projects without their knowledge, being underestimated and given menial work to do, doing all the work but getting zero acknowledgement, and the list goes on. Consider this… if men were more aware and treated women equally, and women no longer succumbed to discouraging attitudes, behaviors and disparaging words, instead tenaciously working toward their vision of what a successful career looks like, what would STEM look like in 10, 20, 30 years from now? How would our conversations with men sound? What can we do to keep that conversation going to help the women who are coming up behind us? How do we keep from deceiving ourselves into thinking that we cannot have and do it all?
    Hilton’s example of considering the importance of women in STEM and striving to accommodate their needs is commendable and one to be copied and applied everywhere! By tackling the issues at hand one step at a time and seeing those changes bear beneficial fruit for all involved, it is possible to bring attention to the need for funding to be rerouted to build diversity and present opportunities to all the 52% of women who earned their doctorates in STEM.

  2. As a women going into the stem field I am concerned about having a family as well as being able to have a career. This blog discussed various ways to stop the gender pay gap but how realistic are these changes? Do schools even have the money to pay for transportation for a women and her kids? Then on top of that pay for a caregiver? There are plenty of influential people that have both an amazing career and are able to take care of their families. I believe that if we band together as women and support each other we can be the change that we want to see. As more women fight against the gender pay gap maybe then will businesses and corporations take us seriously.

  3. It is unfortunate that women have to make a choice between having a family or having a career. Considering that it takes a man and woman to biologically have a child, half of the time it should me the man who takes time to raise a family. As we all know this is not the case. This issue needs to be addressed in order to close the gender gap. Douglas Hilton mentions that institutions should pay for women to travel to conferences with their children, as nice as this sounds, I wonder if all institutions really have access to these kinds of funds (Emory vs. GSU)? I can’t help but think that Emory has access to more money than GSU, but that is a whole separate issue. Women have the power to demand change. We have a large presence in nearly every field, and should not have to settle for anything less than equality. If all women band together to close the gender gap in STEM then meaningful changes will be made.

  4. Being a first generation American, I do not know too many women in science and academia. So, unfortunately, I have not had the chance to meet many women struggling in with this science gender gap dilemma. What I have gathered from this class is that the science gender gap is noticeable to some women and not noticeable to others. My question is what makes this gender gap invisible to some women and so noticeable to others? Is it because some companies and jobs have more family friendly policies while others do not. Maybe we as women need to focus more on why some women do not see the gap as an obstacle but as an opportunity.

    • I think you have an interesting point here, Sallay. When I was interviewing Mithra Bindhu for the engagement interview assignment, I asked her if throughout her whole life, undergraduate and in professional settings, has she felt any adversity as a women. She responded with a surprisingly definite no, which caught me off guard. But she justified her answer by saying that she had never seen herself as the woman in the office, only as another employee. Therefore, if anyone had treated her differently she didn’t take it as a womanly offense, but more as an opportunity to prove them wrong and not take it so personally. I believe Mithra may be one of the women you describe as ‘not seeing the gender gap’. However, that is not to say that a gender gap exists, just that some women see it from a different aspect.

    • Nicole, Thanks for responding! I am glad you met someone who did not encounter gender bias throughout her career. Unfortunetly, my engagement interviewee has encountered enough gender bias for you and me both. Maybe there is a difference between immigrant women and natural born citizens.

    • Sallay, I have been wondering about this discrepancy myself. It seems that some women face gender bias, discrimination, and opposition consistently while others seem to never encounter it at all. Like Nicole, I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Bindu. When I asked her about her experiences as a woman in STEM and what obstacles she has faced, she responded that she never really felt that adversity. She did add that it might have been due to her having a “thick skin.” She has encountered rude rejections and unnecessary comments from people, but she never let what these people did or say bother her. She did not regard their actions as a hindrance in her career choices. I think the only way she felt hindered was culturally. She said that she wanted to leave India after establishing her company there to come back to the States mainly because women do not have the same freedoms as they do here. The entrepreneurial spirit that is encouraged here is frowned upon in women in India. She could not speak her mind freely or do the things she wanted. Her husband had to represent her in order for her voice to be heard and her ideas to be carried out.
      I also remember asking Dr. Harriet Robinson, the co-founder of GeoVax, about the same issue. She told that she absolutely never felt any discrimination or adversity throughout her time as a scientist. I asked her about her upbringing, and she said that she had been raised as the only girl with several brothers. Most of her extended family were male as well. I wondered if perhaps being surrounded by males allowed her to have the confidence, assurance, and tenacity to carry out whatever she wanted to accomplish.
      Speaking with them made me wonder if they had faced obstacles and gender bias, but they had simply ignored it thinking that it was ridiculous and unworthy of any of their attention. Maybe they were completely focused on what they wanted and did not allow such things to interrupt the flow of their thoughts and lives. Or maybe it was due to the type of support and abundance of support that they had. In Ms. Bindhu’s case, she said that her husband was her greatest support, and she felt that she could accomplish anything as long as her had her back. She also had the advantage of having a wonderful mentor who happened to be male. So Sallay, I think you pose a great question. Why is it that some see it and some do not? I think we may need to look deeper and take a look at the personal aspects and background of a STEM woman’s life to better understand this difference.

    • It seems that work environment is an important factor in determining whether women experience and notice the gender gap. My engagement interviewee, Dr. Andrea Bowens-Jones, mentioned that she did face this issue when she worked for corporate America. She found that she was constantly proving herself to her colleagues as she attempted to discredit any preconceived notions they had concerning her as an African-American woman. However, in her other endeavors outside of corporate America, she did not notice any gender discrimination. She noted that the only challenges she faced were challenges common to all who start their own companies.

      When we discussed family/work balance, she explained the lesson that she had to learn: every decision you make has costs. You have to decide in the beginning what you must have and can do without so that you won’t regret any of your decisions. Combining this advice with these new family-friendly policies will motivate more women to pursue careers in the sciences.

  5. Based on the statistics presented, it is apparent that women are making a difference in decreasing gender gaps. There is progress in the number of women that are being accepted in as assistant professors and full professors, although there is still major improvement that needs to be done. Personally, it feels as if for a very long time, women have been pictured as the sex to just stay home, clean the house, raise the kids, and etc. It will be difficult and time consuming to get the world to begin shifting their ideas and views of women into another direction. Overtime, I do believe that the world will become accepting of the idea of women stepping out of these traditional roles and begin to fill the same roles that men do.
    As the article states, one battle that women continue to fight is how to balance their family and work life. Several women, including myself, do want to be able to raise a family and be able to maintain a good career at the same time. The time dedicated to family and work cannot be equal and one will have to make decisions and sacrifices along the way. Nonetheless, this shouldn’t stand as a block for women to give up easily on their career or the idea of raising a family. According to Sheryl Sandberg in Lean in For Graduates, it is possible to have an amazing career and an amazing family; one does not have to compromise one for the other. Just as the article stated, it is possible to survive with a having a career in the sciences and having children. In my opinion, these problems are best solved one day at a time. I agree with a statement in the article that says “ don’t fear decisions; embrace them.”
    I do not believe in having to choose between one’s career or family because both goals are achievable. With these thoughts in mind, I do believe that women should hold themselves back or have to make a choice between having a family and having a good career.
    In addition to these, I believe that institutions should learn to accomodate women and their family. Companies and institutions should know that most women and even men are family-oriented and that having children is inevitable. In addition to women learning to balance work and family, companies and institutions also need to make arrangements and accomodations for women to be more accepted into the workforce.

  6. This was a very informative article and a wonderful glimpse into what will hopefully be the future of women in science. I enjoy the fact that other places are searching for and making ways to help women advance within the STEM fields; however, it would be even better to see these same changes being made in our country.

    As personally recounted by one of our guest speakers, many women are held back due to nothing other than the fact that they started a family and (in reference to the field of academia) did not bring in grants during the time that they were tending to their newborns. It is sad and, quite frankly, unacceptable to fathom that in the year 2016 women are still faced with the task of defending themselves and their personal choices to those who have ultimate say over their career advancement (e.g. tenure, etc.). As the individuals making the aforementioned decisions for women in the STEM field are, undoubtedly, well educated, one could potentially infer that a general understanding of the biological process of creating a human being (and the stress that the aforementioned process places on the human body) could be assumed; however, it seems as though women are expected to resume all of their normal duties and adopt the skill of omnipresence the moment the child has been delivered. Therefore, when evaluating a woman based on her performance, the time taken to give birth, recover, and tend to her newborn should not be factored into her evaluation. Instead, those deciding on career advancement for women should look at their contributions during the time that they were actually in the workplace rather than at their lack of performance during their absence. After all, would a man who took a medical leave of absence be treated so harshly?

  7. In my opinion, unfortunately the family/work balance is not only an issue in the scientific field, but all fields. However this article highlighted the family/work balance in the scientific world. The blog highlighted how environments are changing to be more family friendly, allowing women the ability to be able to pursue their careers and have a family at the same time. It is so encouraging to see that people are realizing the importance of creating an environment that is more accommodating for women to have families if they choose. Douglas Hilton calls all institutions to action about implementing policies that allow women more flexibility even if the policies are costly. It is unfair how society has forced women into a position to choice family or career. Institutions should be eager to develop policies to help women continue their careers in science. Most women today are not able to follow Cordova’s advice because of the limitations that are mainly out of their control. Luckily my mom was able to have me and still pursue her career. Many women are not granted that luxury. It is important that we make an effort to push everyone to adopt these policies that allow women the freedom to have a family. Personally, I think each one of us in our class should challenge ourselves to express our opinion on this issue at our place of work in the future. We should not be forced to make the decision between family and money.

    • You’re absolutely right! I am aiming to become a physician assistant, and I found out that that over 70 percent of all physician assistants are women. Women choose to be physician assistants over doctors due to flexible schedules and family-friendly oriented jobs which I admire. I am studying to be a PA because I didn’t have the dedication to go through 4 years of medical school plus 3-4 years of residency, but I agree with you that women should have the same equal rights and should not be making decision between job or family. Why should women have to give up working once they decide to have children and raise a family of their own? But the society has changed little by little; there are more dads who stay at home and take care of house chores while women work. While it is not the most common, this has shown that certain jobs and responsibilities are not restricted to specific genders. I do wish others would understand as well, but women leave their jobs in the workforce, often permanently, to raise their children; some do return to work but not to their old jobs.

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