It’s not a pipeline problem – it’s a systems problem.

There is no shortage of women entering medical research. However, differences in the rates of development, retention and promotion between men and women lead to an inversion in the ratios of men and women at higher levels.

WiSPP data collected in 2016 (Fig. 1) is comparable to the data from other surveys and data on Fellowship awards from the National Health and Medical Research Council (Fig. 2). This comparison indicates that the problems in the five WiSPP MRIs reflect national issues in the science sector.

These “scissor graphs”, which elegantly depict the stark reality of gender imbalance in senior roles in medical research, have looked like this since the 1980’s. High numbers of women completing science PhD’s does not translate to high numbers of women at more senior levels.

So the issue is not so much to encourage more women into medical research, but to change the environment to enable them to lead and excel.

Figure 1: MRI Workforce by Gender and Paygrade

Figure 1: MRI Workforce by Gender and Paygrade

Figure 2: NHMRC Fellowship Awards (2016)

Figure 2: NHMRC Fellowship Awards (2016)

What are the key issues?

The failure to retain highly trained women in medical research hampers innovation and productivity of the health and medical research sector. The reasons for fewer women in the higher tiers of health and medical research are complex and multifaceted, including:

  • Pressures of balancing carer responsibilities with competitive access to research opportunities.

  • Lack of role models; inequitable access to mentoring, sponsorship and other drivers of career progression.

  • Unconscious bias and normalised discriminatory behaviours that affect access to collaboration, publication and funding opportunities.