BLOG: Overcoming barriers as a female scientist

On International Women’s Day, Dr Sarah Jones, Reader in Pharmacology, reflects on her career as a female scientist and how the landscape has changed over the years.

As a teenage girl growing up in 1980s Britain, the landscape for women in science was demonstrably different than today. Chemistry and Physics classes were usually only composed of 10% women and during a parents evening my mother and father were told “She’s very good at physics for a girl”. 

Compared to then, I can honestly say that as a female scientist in academia today, I am, amongst my immediate peers at least, not judged on my ability to do the job based upon my gender.

Saying that, unconscious bias and antiquated comments can still be rife. Women may be initially judged on their appearance as opposed to their mind. When challenged, an all too ready response will be, “we as men are biologically preprogrammed”. Yet if a woman makes a mistake or is feeling a little under the weather, one may hear “women are slaves to their hormones”. These paradoxical responses have never failed to perplex or bemuse and no, they do not go unchallenged.

Recently I was patronizingly called “my dear” by a new member of staff. I simply counteracted his viewpoint, not forgetting to finish off by referring to him as “my dear”. I have also been called “love” by a student, whilst he has referred to a male colleague standing next to me as “Doctor”.

On a more humorous and celebratory note, at last year’s European Peptide Symposium, I overheard the following: “This is the first time I have encountered a queue in the women’s loos at a Chemistry conference.”


These experiences aside, I frequently worry about censoring speech through punitive ‘policies and procedures’. Bring debate into the open. Discussion, debate and yes arguing are far more likely to change perceptions as opposed to silencing misconceptions. This is a strategy I hold dear.

Debate, stand up for yourself, even if this feels uncomfortable. You will be respected for doing so in the end and antiquated attitudes will eventually change. Secondly, for all those women who wish to pursue a career in science, please ignore every gender stereotype that is thrown at you.

I am very skeptical of current approaches in society to rectify inequalities. I refer of course to neoliberalism, whereby organisations promote their own unique brand of equality and diversity. Such driving forces are not embedded in a genuine struggle for equality or indeed a meritocracy, nor do they possess an emancipatory imperative, rather they are determined by market forces.

I am certainly not convinced that we can leave the future of women in science in the hands of market forces, particularly in an economic downturn, when scapegoating notoriously thrives.

Whilst I have thus far only relayed personal reflections and opinions, we must not forget data which reflects the larger picture. Within academia, males still occupy the higher echelons of employment within the STEM disciplines. The gender difference is particularly striking among full-time academic senior managers in which 79% are male (Equality Challenge Unit, 2013) and only 17% STEM professors are women (House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, 2014).

An illuminating study in the Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012) revealed that women’s advancement within academic science may be actively impeded. Impetus for such a study was fueled by the observation that although the proportion of science degrees awarded to women has increased in the USA, there appears to be a persistent disparity between the number of females receiving PhDs and those hired within the academic setting (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012).

In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), both male and female academics rated the application material of a student for the position of a laboratory manager. The only difference between the randomly assigned applications was the name of the applicant, a male or female name. Alarmingly, this study revealed that academic staff rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the identical female counterpart and a higher starting salary was chosen for the male applicant.

Clearly, gender bias can be held by some of the most egalitarian of people and ‘unintended’ bias is shaped from repeat exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes, rather than a conscious desire to actively discriminate.

It is these very large scale prejudicial barriers within society which may filter into the mindsets of both scientists and institutions within which they work. If so, we have a responsibility to address such perceptions to not only ensure equality, but to enhance the employability and career progression of our female graduates.


Dr Jones was recently quoted in Science magazine for a piece on women in STEM.


Equality Challenge Unit (2013) Equality in higher education: statistical report 2013 [online]. Available at: <>.



House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2014) Women in scientific careers sixth report of session 2013-14. London: House of Commons


Moss-Racusin, C.A., Dovidio, J.F., Brescoll, V.L., Graham, M.J. and Handelsman, J. (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favour male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(41), pp. 16474-16479.


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