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Challenges women face in science and how to cope with them

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

By Dr. Caroline Mauvezin, Dr. Nesibe Peker, Surbhi Verma, and Dr. Sharon Tooze

According to the UNESCO institute for statistics, women still account for less than 30% of the world’s researchers. While the number of women graduating with the highest academic degree is increasing, women scientists are broadly underrepresented in research leadership positions. The WIA mentoring committee organized two sessions on Challenges for Women in Science in Sept. 2021 to address and discuss the challenges women scientists face during their careers. We invited exceptional women scientists at different career stages to share with us their personal experience and further discussed the challenges they faced and are still facing. During these sessions, we had the honor to welcome six panelists from a variety of organizations and backgrounds spanning the world: Dr. Jina Swartz (Merck, USA), but located in the UK), Dr. Patricia Boya (CIB-Margarita Salas, Spain) and Dr. Maho Hamasaki (Osaka University, Japan) for the first event (Sept. 8); Dr. Nuria Montserrat (IBEC, Spain), Dr. Malene Hansen (Buck Institute for Aging Research, USA) and Dr. Erika Holzbaur (University of Pennsylvania, USA) for the second edition of the event (Sept. 23). For these events, we asked the panelists to answer two questions: “What has been the one biggest challenge for you to overcome as a woman researcher and did your experience make you think about alternatives/solutions to implement in the future to help women in science?” and “Did you have the chance to meet or find a female role model to mentor you? If yes, please share with us one key message you cherish. If not, explain why and what are you implementing or would like to see implemented as a female leader to change that for the future generations?”. Here we provide a summary of some of the answers as well as the main topics discussed during those fruitful sessions to share the insights provided and start an open dialogue with all WIA members about the challenges we face.

The importance of visibility, recognition and networking

The importance of a sense of belonging to a group of inspiring and successful women was clearly highlighted by the panelists. As Dr. Jina Swartz said “it's much easier to move forward if there is collaboration and (institutional) support”.

Women face different types of barriers, experience bullying by peers and discrimination and have to overcome these while demonstrating their commitment and dedication in order to obtain a professional recognition. While appreciation from both colleagues and institutions is crucial, being recognized by your peers gives women scientists a sense of validation, purpose and comfort to inspire other women to overcome the barriers. By increasing the visibility of women as mentors, speakers and leaders, role models emerge both locally as well as globally and pave the way for future generations. Women scientists are in great need of a supportive network such as WIA to exchange experiences and speak up. As Dr. Nuria Montserrat clearly stated, “there are also actions we can individually take regarding our own institution legislation, to “push” forward and towards women/parent-friendly scientific research center policies”.

Being a strong and successful female scientist provides the community role models but showing leadership initiative is often accompanied by negative labels for women. This needs to change and we have to do it collectively in order to make change reality.

Work life balance: Having a family and pursuing a successful career in science

When a cross-sectional survey across 55 countries was conducted to profile female scientists and to identify challenges that they experience throughout their career, work-life imbalance was the major issue (Fathima FN et al.). Dr. Patricia Boya described how she balances her work and busy personal life. For Dr. Boya, “The challenges are loftier when a woman is a mother too, and this has been my biggest challenge till date”. To overcome this challenge, she took a step back to reorganize her schedule and consciously separate her work from her personal life, as for example taking one evening for herself to reconcile with her individual needs. Through this mindful effort, Patricia enjoys better and more efficiently working hours and quality family time. Dr. Boya supports women in her lab and believes in providing them flexibility for better work productivity.

Dr. Erika Holzbaur suggested that the lab culture should be redefined in a way that people should not be judged by the time they spend in labs. To maintain the respect of their colleagues, women tend to work harder and spend more hours in the lab. Dr. Holzbaur emphasized that “Creativity and success in science is not proportional to the number of working hours, one can be innovative even while playing with their kids. Moreover, women often face social pressures for being a working mother, and Dr. Holzbaur insisted that successful women need to be visible in the workplace and openly acknowledge their capacity to manage family and children along with their professional career. By providing support for their peers and trainees with initiatives such as on-campus breastfeeding and child care facilities for enabling their scientific work and progressing their careers.

The biggest challenge Dr. Holzbaur faced when she started her career was the lack of a role models, who were juggling raising a family and advancing in their scientific career. Eventually through a group of women scientists with share interest in actin biology (which she refers to as her “actin ladies” group), she met other women who were successfully navigating these challenges. She emphasized the importance of learning from established women scientists to help your way according to your personal situation. Thus, she applauds the WIA initiative for creating the platform for women to share their experiences in order to cope with these challenges.

Cultural barriers

Cultural differences and a women's role in society can be a barrier for women to succeed in science. These barriers may directly or indirectly impede a successful scientific career. In some societies, because of cultural biases, women may be considered not suitable and unequipped for leadership positions. Dr. Maho Hamasaki emphasized that these barriers are more entrenched in Asian conservative societies, where women face high expectations to take on familial responsibilities”. In these societies, family responsibilities would exclude the possibility of achieving a successful scientific career.

Dr. Maho Hamasaki also highlighted that man-dominated hierarchical structure is self-reinforcing. Where women scientists are few, there is an obvious lack of women role models. Dr. Malene Hansen addressed a similar issue and mentioned thata strong mentoring program would help women to create a feed-forward mechanism between junior and senior women scientists and stated that “Mentoring goes both ways as mentees and mentors continuously learn from each other”. She pointed out the diversity of possible mentoring systems, not only from senior to support junior scientists, but also junior to junior as well as junior to senior. By doing so, women scientists will become responsive to each other’s experiences, expand their professional perspective and fortify the role of women in science.

To overcome these difficulties, women scientists need to communicate and act to address the equality of both genders in their field. Although cultural barriers are ossified in some societies, an equal appreciation of women’s role in the sciences will create a healthier and productive environment for both genders.

As a take-home message, panelists and participants agreed that individuals need to come together to support their colleagues. We can do this on a one-to one-basis, but we can also do it on a group basis. Indeed, networking and initiatives like WIA and other professional organizations are essential to nurture our feeling of belonging to an inspiring group and getting the support we need to move forward our careers.


Fathima FN, Awor P, Yen Y-C, Gnanaselvam NA, Zakham F (2020) Challenges and coping strategies faced by female scientists—A multicentric cross sectional study. PLoS ONE 15(9): e0238635.

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A very nice study has been recently published in Nature about imposter syndrome.

Read here:

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