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The Black Hole

More ideas to close the gender gap in science

These are just a few of the ways that men and women can help to balance the gender scales in academic science.


Many readers will recall my post from a few months back about my 2019 commitment to share good ideas for promoting gender parity in academic science. Last week I was invited to sit on a panel discussion for International Women’s Day at the Cancer Research UK headquarters in London. I was invited to share my experience as a male group leader who has taken shared parental leave for his kids and was joined by four amazing women from the research and administrative side of science (Jess Wade, Mariam Jamal-Hanjani, Rita Akushi, and Michelle Mitchell). A number of excellent ideas were shared, but I’ll focus on the three that really stood out for me: Jess Wade’s Wikipedia project to redress gender balance in the biographies (and contributions of female scientists), having joint lab heads to help manage time away, and providing financial support to incentivize both parents to take time off to raise children.

Jess Wade’s Wikipedia project

Jess is a postdoctoral fellow in physics and when she tells her story about her successes in a male dominated field, you get the real sense that she was inspired by great teachers and great role models. Recognizing this support, she started thinking about the reasons why so many young females leave physics and where they sourced their role models from. The result: a massive Wikipedia campaign to improve the visibility of female scientists. Dr. Wade has created 100’s of female scientist biographies and her mammoth efforts earned her a spot on Nature‘ 10 people who mattered list.

Joint lab heads: Two heads are better than one

I wrote about having joint lab heads more comprehensively in 2010, but a question raised at last week’s panel adds another compelling reason to consider large-scale adoption of jointly run labs. The question was around how to properly protect time for parents of new children without ruining their careers. Answers were given for PhDs and postdoctoral fellow that involved finding trustworthy collaborators within the lab and hiring extra help; but when it came to group leaders, options were more limited because some tasks cannot easily be replaced (more to come on this in my next post). If labs were run by more than a single person, this problem would be substantially mitigated. A project leader in a company would be supported by other team members (signatures, strategic decision-making, funding decisions, etc), why not in academia? We need to move away from the single patriarchal model of single lab heads.

Financial incentives to encourage both parents to take leave

I was reminded during the panel discussion that one of the regularly cited reasons for men to avoid taking parental leave is the extra financial burden it would place on the family to not draw the man’s salary (in cases where the man makes more money than the woman). This causes a self-reinforcing loop of lower salaries and less earning potential that could be compounded further by additional children if the woman’s salary growth has already been hampered by the first child. The simplest solution would be for funding agencies and institutions to top up to the higher of the two salaries if both parents take time off (perhaps with a ceiling to avoid abuse of the benefit). Even better would be a national effort by the government to encourage this by a top-up benefit so people in all careers could benefit.

These ideas are just a few of the many ways in which men and women can help to balance the gender scales in academic science and I hope that our readers will continue to share their suggestions and comments.

I’ll leave you with a reminder of practical ways that people (including men!) can help in their day-to-day lives:

  • Refuse to take part in all male panels
  • Recommend female colleagues for promotion, for positions of stature, and as experts in your field
  • Call out (especially if you are a man!) sexist, racist, and prejudiced behaviour of your colleagues
  • Support people who are the victims of harassment or bullying

These things will only get better if we all work together to change the culture.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Sarah M Mah / March 15, 2019 at 11:37

    Thanks for the article, David. I think these ideas should be taken seriously by universities in shaping their policies around conduct/misconduct, hiring, and teaching. Will share.

  2. Marloes Tijssen / March 16, 2019 at 15:13

    Joint lab heads is one idea. Another is one lab head with one or two experienced post-docs who take the lead when the lab head is not there. Not everyone wants to be a lab head and we lose a lot of experienced post-docs, because they struggle to find part time jobs. When I worked part time as a lab head, there were two experienced post-docs in my team who also worked part time. Together we worked 210% FTE. The problem was to convince funders that it was worth their money to let an ‘inexperienced’ lab head hire such ‘expensive’ staff. Our team was extremely motivated and productive. Although we may have worked part time, we were all committed, driven and flexible and ultimately, the funders got the experience and input from the three of us for the price of two (and a bit).

  3. Lorne Carmichael / March 20, 2019 at 13:42

    All good ideas, but the problems they address exist in other fields as well, including areas such as medicine and law that women have entered in great numbers.

    The sex ratio in a field is not a measure of the degree of unfairness experienced by the minority group.