December 2014 | ISSUE 15
Women in Science: a minority report

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By Nicole Lim
Assistant Director, Communications & External Relations

Having children is a death knell for many women working in science. But not for Daniela Rhodes.

She had been working at the world-renowned MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge as a research assistant for several years when the birth of her son spurred her on to get a hold of her career. She completed her PhD and shortly after got an independent research position and tenure at the same place.

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Prof Rhodes FRS, an internationally-renowned structural and molecular biologist

​Today, Professor Rhodes is full professor at LKCMedicine and NTU’s School of Biological Sciences and an internationally-renowned scientist focusing on telomeres, the caps of chromosomes which protect them from damage and which shrink as we age, making us more susceptible to ageing-related diseases.

She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society, and an elected member of the prestigious European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) and the Academia Europaea. And she continues to be an outlier.

While women now make up the majority of graduates in life sciences in Singapore, this balance is not maintained as they rise through the ranks. According to a 2012 survey by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, women hold only 28 per cent of research scientist and engineering roles.

This trend is also evident among LKCMedicine’s full-time and joint appointment research faculty, where three out of 11 assistant professors are women. This rises to five out of 10 for associate professors before falling to just two out of 14 at the full professor level.

It comes as no surprise then that prestigious scientific academies such as the UK’s Royal Society have a female membership of just five per cent.

This pattern is not exclusive to science, and is reflected across industries and professions, with only three per cent of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies being held by women. In Singapore, 23 per cent of senior management roles are held by women.

But the landscape is changing, with significant improvements made in particular in academic medicine. A benchmark report by the Association of American Medical Colleges found that the number of women holding full, associate or assistant professor level positions increased by around seven per cent over the last decade or so.

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From left to right: Senior Vice-Dean Prof Higham; Vice-Dean for Education Assoc Prof Low-Beer; Assistant Dean for Phase 2 & 3 Assoc Prof Tham

At LKCMedicine, a third of the core leadership positions are held by women, including the position of Senior Vice-Dean, second only to the School’s Dean. The position is held by Professor Jenny Higham, who is also Vice-Dean for Institutional Affairs and Director of Education in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial. Among Assistant Deans, women account for almost half of the post holders.

Vice-Dean for Education Associate Professor Naomi Low-Beer said that the number of women in UK academic medical centres who pursue a career in research or education has been rising steadily. “We’re slowly but surely redressing the historical gender bias, so that it is no longer unusual to find women as presidents of scientific societies or heads of academic departments,” said Assoc Prof Low-Beer.

In Singapore too, women are well-represented in academic medical centres. Assistant Dean for Phase 2 & 3 Associate Professor Tham Kum Ying said, “I have met few gender-related obstacles at work and in the healthcare profession in Singapore. Contrary to expectations, a career in emergency medicine is not family unfriendly – just look at the number of women emergency physicians in Singapore! With support from our family, most of us do well and rise to the same positions as our male colleagues.” Assoc Prof Tham is also Assistant Chairman of the Medical Board for Education and Senior Consultant at the Department of Emergency Medicine at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

But what more can be done?

Science is for everyone
When asked what sparked their interest in science, many scientists cite nurture and nature. Growing up, Prof Rhodes was always fascinated by nature, spending her time classifying plants in the Swedish countryside. Although more interested in art, she kept winning the maths prize at school. When it came to applying for a place at university, she settled on architecture. “But the course was full, so I ended up doing chemical engineering,” said Prof Rhodes.

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From left to right: Nanyang Assoc Prof Crasta's research hopes to identify novel cellular targets that could be of relevance to the development of combination therapies to improve sensitization of tumour cells and provide insights into chemoresistance; Professor of Infectious Diseases Wilder-Smith's research interests are in vaccine-preventable diseases and emerging infectious diseases

Nanyang Associate Professor Karen Crasta too grew up in a family that celebrated science. Holidays were spent exploring museums and looking at nature under the guidance of her botanist mother and engineer father. “I never thought I wouldn’t fit in or that I couldn’t do science. But at NTU’s recent WEST [Women in Engineering, Science & Technology] symposium, I overheard a group of girls who were astonished that women could be engineers. We need more images of women in science,” said Assoc Prof Crasta.

To help change this perception, Assoc Prof Crasta became an ambassador for the UN Women in Science STEM Programme. As part of her responsibilities, she brings secondary school girls to her lab to get some hands-on experience.

One other aspect that needs to change during childhood is to nurture girls’ leadership abilities. “We women and girls are brought up to do well, work hard and excel in exams, but we are not brought up to lead,” said LKCMedicine Professor of Infectious Diseases Annelies Wilder-Smith, who believes that tailored leadership courses should form part of professional development.

Support structures to meet the modern family needs
Many researchers get the opportunity to set up an independent laboratory when they are in their 30s, a time when many couples also decide whether to have a family. “Even today, working mothers still take on more responsibilities at home than men. In addition to their working life, they devote a lot of effort and energy on taking care of home and children,” said LKCMedicine Assistant Professor Wang Xiaomeng.

To address this problem, LKCMedicine Vice-Dean for Research Professor Philip Ingham FRS said society needs to come together as a whole. “The problem is that society tends to perpetuate this asymmetry, for instance by granting women much longer periods of parental leave than men. Although well intentioned, this reinforces the stereotype that the mother should assume the major caring responsibilities in the home. But there is no reason why this has to be the case,” he said.

The dual responsibility of looking after a lab and raising a family means that female postdocs who become parents or plan to have children remain more likely to give up their careers than men in similar circumstances.

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 Asst Prof Wang's research focuses on a novel protein which promotes the formation of new blood vessels

For Prof Wilder-Smith, there was no question that she wouldn’t take some time out to be with her children when they were small. But throughout that time, she kept busy with further studies, courses and part-time work. “I feel it is very important that women don’t put their professional lives on hold completely when they have children. Always remain involved in your work, even if only part-time, to help keep your finger on the pulse,” said Prof Wilder-Smith.

In addition, support structures, such as re-entry grants, easily available and affordable childcare, can facilitate the return to work for scientists who chose to spend time with their family.

“From my own experience as Director of an MRC Centre in the UK, where the majority of my faculty were women, provision of affordable and flexible childcare facilities is the key to the successful resumption of research activities after giving birth. In most cases, my colleagues were back at work within weeks of delivering, secure in the knowledge that their children were within easy reach and in good hands,” said Prof Ingham.

Greater flexibility in working arrangements also allows employees to keep a handle on their career while looking after young children or caring for the sick or elderly, avoiding the possible loss of confidence some experience after leaving the workforce completely. “The system needs to learn to tolerate the ‘minor irritations’ that occur when people need flexible working arrangements to balance work and family commitments because the benefits of keeping good performers in the workforce far outweigh any relatively small adjustments, and have a huge payback to both the organisation and the individual,” said Prof Higham.

Leadership and role models
While significant progress has been made to achieve gender equality, if we continue at the current pace of change, full equality in the workplace for women will only be achieved by the end of this century, estimates the latest World Economic Forum report.

To drive the pace of change, many female scientists believe that quotas to ensure adequate female representation need to be put in place. “I have become convinced that for a while, quotas are necessary because the situation will not take care of itself at this point,” said Prof Rhodes.

Prof Wilder-Smith agrees that quotas are needed to break into the established and closed circles of senior academics and researchers. “The main reasons we need quotas is to avoid perpetuating this old boys’ club mentality and the preference for applications by men because of personal bias,” said Prof Wilder-Smith.

Around the world, quotas, though they remain controversial, are being tried out – from politics to science. And it is not just on funding committees that adequate representation is required. Teams applying for research and conference grants also need to have female members for some US funding agencies.       

With greater female representation on high profile committees and scientific organisations, women will also have more role models. “Having female role models is very important. It will give other female researchers the faith that they can do it too. They can also provide psychological support and advice,” said Asst Prof Wang.

Greater diversity doesn’t just help attract more women to the field. It is also good for business. A Credit Suisse report in 2014 found that a greater number of women in senior management positions improves companies’ financial performance and returns on equity for investors. Surely it is not too great a leap to imagine similar benefits could be reaped by science?

But with such few women at the top of science to choose from, this will mean an additional burden for those who have made it to the top. “Yes, it will be more work, but it is paying it forward, so that more women can see a long-term future for themselves in science,” said Prof Rhodes.