The Status of Women in the Life Sciences


Women in the life sciences seem to attract less concern and attention than women in physics, IT or engineering. Perhaps because women in the life sciences at undergraduate and, more recently, postgraduate level have equalled or exceeded men for the past 30 or so years. The poor representation of women at professorial level in biology – still only 15% in the United Kingdom – shows an appalling waste of potential talent, often referred to as the ‘leaky pipeline’. Given the significant attention paid to the under‐representation of women across STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects globally by national academies, employers and governments over the past 15 years, it is disappointing to observe such poor progress.

More attention needs to be paid to the career planning and professional preparation of young women, so that more will be able to progress to senior positions and decision‐making roles. Educational institutions and employers need to evolve in the form of inclusive leadership, structural changes and good management policies and practices. Also, shifts from a purely male orientation of science and changes in cultural stances need to be implemented, including addressing unconscious bias by both women and men towards women and the recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Key Concepts

  • Women leave the life sciences at every step of the career ladder in greater proportions than men. This is termed the ‘leaky pipeline’.
  • Unconscious bias and discrimination against women, preventing their career advancement, results in fewer women in senior positions.
  • Much of scientific research is undertaken with little thought about whether there is a gender context; for example, omitting women from studies and trials.
  • There is a lack of career planning, personal development and preparation for leadership for women in the life sciences.
  • Creating a level playing field for women in life science requires the effective implementation of policies around recruitment, promotion and workplace cultures.

Keywords: The Rising Tide; Athena Project; women; underrepresentation; participation of women in science; promotion of women; female scientists; women in science; women and leadership; life science careers

Figure 1. Women researchers as a percentage of the research population by region across the world. Source: UNESCO Institute of Statistics online November 2014.
Figure 2. Proportion of female researchers active in the business sector in 2009. Source: European Commission She Figures 2012 online 1 November 2014.
Figure 3. Proportions of men and women in various stages of a typical academic research career across EU‐27 2002–2010: Source: Eurostat women in science database. See also International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). Source: European Commission 2012.
Figure 4. (a) Professor Jackie Hunter, CEO, UK Biotechnology and Biological Research Council. With permission of BBSRC. Photographer: Max Alexander. (b) Dr Segenet Kelemu, Director General, International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), Kenya. With permission, © L'Oreal.
Figure 5. Illustration of countries (shown in green) with a formal approach to addressing the under‐representation of women on boards. Reproduced with permission © Catalyst Inc.


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Peters, Jan W, and Lane, Nancy J(Apr 2015) The Status of Women in the Life Sciences. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003457.pub2]