Women in the biological sciences: A diverse solution

By Amy Bradshaw.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

I first decided I wanted to pursue a career in science when I was about 15 years old. I always enjoyed biology at school and was fascinated by the cellular mechanisms used to replicate DNA and divide cells. I also discovered that I had a fairly natural aptitude for understanding these processes, and I was encouraged by my teachers to consider doing a science degree at university.

That’s exactly what I did. I started a Bachelor of Biomedical Science in 2007, graduated in 2009 and started my first full time job as a technician in a diagnostic microbiology laboratory at the end of that same year (fortunate, I know). It would be several years before I would start to seriously notice the general trends in the gender distribution in the workplace, yet looking back now, it seems so obvious. Perhaps I didn’t notice at first because I was a 20 year old new grad just starting a career, or perhaps it was because I was actually surrounded by women in my department. In fact I’d say that about 75% of our department (possibly a bit more) consisted of women, including the team leaders and the head of department.

Sounds pretty good right? That’s what I thought too, but hindsight is a wonderful thing for opening up your eyes to issues you’ve missed in the past. What I realised later is that (at least in my experience) the gender divide in the biological sciences is less to do with numbers, and much more to do with position. At this particular company, once one looked past the labs and into the corporate senior leadership team, the number of women represented there dropped significantly. Of course, I was certainly not the only one to notice this. Data collected in 2011 by the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) showed a “disproportionate number of men in senior positions at [New Zealand’s] Crown Research Institutes and among science heads of departments across out universities”.[1]

Fast forward three years and I would then leave the diagnostic lab to pursue a Master of Biomedical Science, because unsurprisingly, in the science field a Bachelors degree doesn’t get you very far, despite what the university will tell you! Anyway, I graduated with a Masters degree in 2015 and then joined a small research institute for a nine month stint to finalise an ongoing project. Thus started the most difficult job I’ve ever had, but not because of the research. Because of everything surrounding it. I’ll get to that, but first here’s a basic outline of the staff we had when I was there. We had four Lab Technicians (all female), two Research Nurses (female), one Executive Assistant (female), one Post-doctoral Researcher (male), one Senior Research Fellow (male), one Chief Scientific Officer (male), and one Executive Director (male). Looking purely at the numbers this makes the staff of the Institute 64% (7/11) female, but again the gender distribution between roles is seriously skewed, with the four men holding all four of the highest positions in the company.

The additional fact that the Honorary Research Associate linked with my project was also male, resulted in the team with the ultimate control over my project (and general working life) being quite the boy’s club, with three of the members seeming to enjoy reminding me of that fact. A lot. This manifested in being talked down to, and having my views and ideas dismissed even though I knew I was in the right. Probably the single incident that best describes the whole situation was when one of the Research Nurses told us (the Technicians), that she had been asked by a senior colleague at the hospital if everything was going okay at the Institute. Upon further inquiry, the Nurse was then told of a conversation that occurred between the curious colleague and the Chief Scientific Officer of the Institute, in which he had designated us “stupid little girls who think they know how to do science”. Our feelings of outrage and disbelief were extreme to say the least, and it was not long before we all found other work, or in my case, my relatively short contract ended. It’s also worth noting that the overarching board of this Institute currently (as of Feb 2020) consists of 6 men, and 1 woman. I for one find this gender bias completely unsurprising, and I count myself lucky that I was able to escape when I did.

My next job was with a government department, and as you might imagine after the debacle of my last role, I was very keen for a fresh start in a new place. However, if I thought that being part of a government facility would mean I would witness an improved treatment of women in the workplace I was sadly mistaken. The trends I had already started to observe in my first two jobs continued, with the vast majority of senior roles in the organisation being held by men, while the technician level laboratory staff were mostly women. During my time there my department went through three separate managers who were all male, whereas the four technicians in the lab were all female. However, I will point out that this was not the case in every area of the lab. There were some women who had made it to department managers, including the overarching lab manager and entire branch manager.

This brings me to a slightly different aspect of being a woman working in the biological sciences, and that is working as a manager as a woman in the biological sciences. Now I must state here that as of the writing of this article I have never held a management role, so all I’m able to convey is my own experiences dealing with female managers. That being said, I’ve been working in the field for more than ten years now and I’ve moved through five different organisations during that time, so I feel like I have at least one leg to stand on in regards to this topic. Plus I’ll throw a few study references at you because that’s what scientists do.

The challenging thing about being a woman in a management position seems to be that as someone advances through the ranks, the number of women they get to interact with on a daily basis decreases. A 2010 Victoria University of Wellington study at found that only 19% of people in senior management positions in New Zealand were female.[2] While we’d all like to believe that things have improved since then, there is actually evidence that the number of businesses with no women in senior management roles is increasing (56% in 2018 in comparison to 37% in 2017).[3] Clearly we still have a fair distance to travel before we start to see a more balanced representation of the genders in upper management and executive roles.

What I’ve observed multiple times over the years is that female managers tend to change their behaviour and/or management style in order to ‘fit in’ better with their male colleagues. This may be done intentionally due to a desire to be taken more seriously, or be completely unintentional and occur purely as a result of prolonged exposure to certain traditionally male behaviour patterns. There is some documented evidence suggesting that I may be on the right track with these observations. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Industrial Psychology followed five female managers in a company where the majority of the management was male, and they found that the women would often adopt traditionally “masculine” characteristics such as bad language and antagonistic behaviour, both verbal and non-verbal.[4]

I’ve seen similar things happen in my workplaces. Female managers become tougher, less emotionally in touch with their staff, and seem keen to prove to their male colleagues that they will not favour their female staff just because they are women. I imagine this is out of a need to be taken seriously and make themselves heard, because apparently a manager is not able to be emotionally tactful and sensitive and be good at their job. Emotional compassion in female managers could cause their male counterparts to possibly see them as ‘weaker’, which in turn may result in the opinions of these women being maligned or even ignored entirely on the basis of them being viewed as too sensitive. Hence the adoption of these hard-line stances. This is certainly not an issue restricted to the scientific field, but seems to be rife amongst most professions.

However, the issue in the biological sciences lies within something I demonstrated earlier – the propensity of the majority (or at least a significant amount) of Lab Technicians to be female. Classic male management of a workgroup with a female majority is almost certain to fail or at least cause some serious problems, which is something I’ve seen several times before. Women tend to need to be more emotionally understood,[5] and in general they are more empathetic and better at interpersonal relationships.[6] This is not to say that women should always be managed by women, but increasing the number of female managers within a company may improve the workplace support network in a way that women can engage with more effectively.

Not only will this be beneficial for employees and managers, but research has shown that increasing the proportion of women in higher management positions can actually have a significant positive effect on business success. A 2018 review found that “gender diversity on executive teams is strongly correlated with profitability and value creation”.[7] Closer to home, a New Zealand study stated that increasing parity between female employment rates and male employment rates could bolster New Zealand’s GDP by 10%.[8] In the scientific fields, the lack of women in some areas has led to research gender-bias, where the male physiology is considered the ‘norm’ in areas such as pharmaceutical testing or disease research. This has obvious pitfalls as men and women often display different symptoms for the same disease, and also react differently to medications.[9]

Women are clearly under-represented and under-utilised in many areas in the workplace, and this needs to change. I don’t mean that women are better than men and we should stage a dramatic coup and take over entirely. Instead, the common thread in all three of the studies mentioned above is that outcomes are improved for everyone as a result of diversity. Men, women, and everyone in between need to work together to find the best way forward. Evidence shows that things are already changing in some places  with the realisation that many of our strengths are found within our differences.[10] So, I’m living in hope for the future, and I hope you are too.


About the Author:
Amy Bradshaw is a scientist currently working in the field of microbiology diagnostics and surveillance. She has a great interest in genetics, antibiotic resistance and forensic investigation. By night she can often be found either acting in the theatre or training in the pole dance studio. Any other free time is usually filled with craft projects or attempting to save various fictional worlds on the PS4.


[1] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11216759

[2] https://women.govt.nz/inspiring-action-for-gender-balance/women-senior-management-why-not

[3] https://www.grantthornton.co.nz/press/press-releases-2018/proportion-of-women-in-nz-senior-leadership-roles-has-hit-rock-bottom/

[4] Martin, Phiona & Barnard, Antoni. (2013). The experience of women in male-dominated occupations: A constructivist grounded theory inquiry. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology. 39. 10.4102/sajip.v39i2.1099.

[5] Meshkat, M., & Nejati, R. (2017). Does Emotional Intelligence Depend on Gender? A Study on Undergraduate English Majors of Three Iranian Universities. SAGE.

[6] https://women.govt.nz/leadership/why-women-leadership

[7] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/delivering-through-diversity

[8] https://women.govt.nz/sites/public_files/Goldman%20Sachs%20Female%20participation.pdf

[9] https://www.elsevier.com/connect/3-reasons-gender-diversity-is-crucial-to-science

[10] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-in-the-workplace-2019


Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash.

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