In this episode, we engage in a dynamic discussion on gender diversity in cancer research with esteemed guests Johanna Joyce, Marisol Soengas, and Mireia Crispin Ortuzar. Exploring challenges faced by women in science, they address the leaky pipeline, postdoc instability, and the importance of fostering inclusive work environments.

Our guests share valuable insights into the need for tailored diversity strategies, supportive networks, and representation at higher career levels in tackling gender disparities. Join us as we navigate through statistics, personal experiences, and practical solutions, working to break barriers and promote equality in cancer research.

Enjoyed it? Stay curious with The Cancer Researcher Podcast. Subscribe now via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music/Audible, Deezer or YouTube so you’ll never miss an episode. You can find all episodes and their transcripts here.

Our guests in this episode:
  • Johanna Joyce, Professor at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.
  • Marisol Soengas, Group Leader at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center, Spain.
  • Mireia Crispin Ortuzar, Assistant Professor at the University of Cambridge, UK.

And our host: Alexandra Boitor, EACR Scientific Officer.

Episode transcript

Alexandra: We usually discuss career progression on this podcast, and our guests share advice on how you can improve your research and better your career prospects. We often prize the tremendous advancements in cancer research and often forget that education and research opportunities are not equally available to all.

I would like to begin this episode by acknowledging that there are a number of relevant and established areas of inequality within academia for STEM disciplines, including biomedical research. There are significant equality gaps between different racial and ethnic groups in terms of access, success, and progression in higher education, and also in academic career progression, in the tendency to move between academic stages.

On the happier corner of underrepresentation, we have the old story of women in research, a subject of targeted interventions for many years. It’s undeniable that those efforts were successful, but to what degree is still a matter of debate. I have here with me today, Marisol, Johanna, and Mireia to further discuss this matter.

I would like to start the conversation today with some quick statistics about women in research. Even though tremendous progress has been made towards increasing the participation of women in academic positions, according to various statistics, including those made by UNESCO, women are still underrepresented in STEM fields.

The latest statistics, which are not quite up to date as many rely on data collected before 2019, show that women still make up only about 28-29% of the STEM workforce worldwide. If we are to focus on Europe, the SHE figures, which monitor the level of progress towards gender equality in research and innovation in the European Union and beyond, showed in 2021 that women represent 42% of academic staff.

Another important factor to take into consideration is the field of research, and biological and medical sciences are thought to be doing a bit better. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find recent statistics specifically for cancer research, but I was hoping you could help me with that.

Marisol: Thank you for the question. I think it’s quite important, to start from the figures. I’m based in Spain and I also participate in different career development and cancer groups in Europe. The numbers are not bad in terms of women starting at PhD level. At least in Spain and many centres in Europe, there are more women than men, about 65%. I guess the numbers then become more problematic at the high level position and at the level of leadership. And this is, at least in these countries, still around 33%. Numbers are changing and improving, but they’re improving very slowly, and that’s what we have to discuss on how to move things faster.

Johanna: Yeah, I would just add that the so called “leaky pipeline”, these scissor-shaped curves that have been shown for every single discipline in science in every single country where the numbers of men and women have been compared, this remains to this day still a disproportionate distribution of women and men. So, I think the notion that we have heard for many, many years, “it’s just a matter of time and this will get better”, clearly that’s not the case. I’ve been hearing that for nearly 20 years now and it’s not going to magically get better by itself. We have to, as scientists and as a community, actively work to close that gap and to ensure that all of these wonderful women who would want to stay in academia are not being pushed out. That’s the challenge that we have.

Mireia: I fully agree with that, and I speak as someone who currently works in cancer research but who’s actually a physicist by training. My PhD was in particle physics, which is one of the areas of physics that is more fundamental in nature. It involves a lot of mathematics that traditionally has been dominated by men, and that is still the case. I was completely surrounded by men during my PhD, and it was very noticeable. And for me, moving to cancer research was a huge change, so I think I can confidently say that the situation is much better in cancer research, but it’s still definitely an issue.

And one thing I would want to highlight is that I think that the distribution is not homogeneous based on what I’ve seen. We use these percentages, and so I think that the natural assumption is to think that everyone everywhere has this particular ratio that’s going to be uniformly distributed. But I think that representation and values around diversity and around how you work, what matters as a team, how you conduct your research etc. can result in really different team compositions. I see how teams that have women attract more women, and have no issues around having really diverse teams. Whereas others say “we just can’t seem to find any women” and it never gets solved.

So I think it’s really important to have this discussion, not just on a global level, but also on a team level. What are you doing in your team to ensure that this isn’t an issue for you? Because some teams seem to be doing it right.

Marisol: I think we also have to reflect on what’s happening when we talk about the leaky pipeline, so it’s a discussion of we lose women. Of course we lose some women because they drop to other careers, but I think what seems to happen is that the women shift. And so I think more than the drop is the shift. Many women scientists start their PhD and then they may go to the postdoctoral studies and stage. So then they decide to move to careers of mid-level positions or even to leave academia for other positions that still are related to science, and this could be in the pharmaceutical sector, contract research organisations etc.

So in other positions we start to see more women than the usual, and that’s because academia is not attractive enough, it’s not paid enough, it’s not recognised enough. So I think those are also points that we need to address. And there are studies now showing that a lot of women go into publishing, for example, going to patent offices where, as you say, Mireia, they feel that there are more women and they may be more welcome. So really, where are these women going? Because yeah, we lose some, but the point is that they don’t get to high level positions.

Johanna: Yeah, and there was actually a very interesting recent study picked up by Nature and Science, it was published by Science Advances I think, where they actually came up with a very surprising finding from analysing thousands of academics in the U.S. over the period of a decade or so. And they found that at the senior levels, at the levels of tenured full professors, that far more women were leaving of their own volition. So they had tenure, they could have stayed until retirement, but they were choosing to leave. And the reason that they were choosing to leave was because of so called toxic work environments.

So this is another really critical issue that many people are identifying. But strikingly even more so at senior levels where women say that they don’t feel that they’ve received recognition that they expected. They’re not being put forward for leadership opportunities. These types of things that are different to the reasons for the disparities at the earlier stages in the academic ladder.

So we of course, as a global community, have rightfully focused on those challenges and trying to address the difficulty with combining work with life outside of work. And that’s extremely important, but we cannot take our eye off the fact that the academic environment also makes a huge contribution.

And as Mireia was saying earlier, the importance of building your team with diversity, with inclusion, with equity. We hear these words all the time and they’re extremely important for how we create and maintain a culture where everybody feels welcome, feels valued, and is recognised for that. These are simple things that we all would love to have and that we would like to give to the people that we work with.

Mireia: And perhaps if I may add two more ideas that I think would be also useful for the rest of the discussion. One is around the leadership issues. I agree with everything that’s been said. Another thing I would add to the mix is that there are women who are hugely successful and are in leadership positions and are very visible, and a very, very common thing I’ve found pretty much everywhere is that these women tend to do a huge number of things. They’re in, every committee, they’re in everything that’s out there that requires leadership and motivation and ambition. It might be a self-selective issue, it might have to do with, “well, we just have two women, so they have to be in all of these things”.

And so you end up having to do a lot of extra work compared to others, I guess, at a similar stage of the career. I think this is something to think about. I mean, it’s great in terms of visibility, but it’s a very, very tangible issue, I think, in terms of workload.

And another idea I wanted to put out there is related to an earlier stage, the postdoc stage, which I think Johanna has also alluded to. I think the issue there is a generic one around the instability of a postdoc. This is an issue for everyone, but I think that it’s an issue that also disproportionately affects women. And so I think a lot of the challenges that we’ve got are of course around women, but they are broader issues with how we’ve set up the academic career.

Alexandra: Thank you for sharing your opinions, and if I may build on what you’ve just said, Mireia, regarding the postdoctoral stage and the instability. Are there any other aspects of the postdoc instability which, in your opinion, may affect women in research more apart from the salary scale or the instability of the job? For instance, do you think the fact that you’ve got limited contracts, like you work for two or three years and you don’t have a permanent contract. Do you think it might affect women more than it affects men?

Mireia: I think that that lack of stability affects everybody. I think the issue with postdocs is that you usually do a postdoc at a time in your life when you’re making big decisions, and that’s true of everybody. You’re probably trying to buy a house, you’re maybe thinking of having children, because of how society is set up. I think that’s true for most of our countries, there’s usually more pressure on women in many of our countries. Women will get a couple of months of parental leave and maternity leave, whereas men are only expected to take two weeks off. And when you don’t have a stable job, that can be a real challenge. So I think those traditional expectations around this stage of your career turn it into more of an issue for women.

In my experience, the workplaces that have a good set of policies and a good example around this can be much healthier. I remember when I started my own postdoctoral research fellowship in the institute I was in, within the first few months, three different male PIs or senior postdocs went on paternity leave for a few months. And that to me sent a really, really strong message saying “this is okay for both men and women”. Men are taking a couple of months off to take on parental duties, even when they’re senior PIs. It sent that message to me that this is a reality that is accepted and celebrated in this place, and therefore it’s not something you have to worry about.

And so I think that definitely changed the atmosphere around it, but of course the fact that if you move to industry, you’re very likely to get a much better salary and a permanent job is still something that is very hard to fight against.

Johanna: Yeah, I guess I would add to that. I think that’s extremely important, right? Also thinking about the examples that all of us set to other people, people who are our peers, people who are trainees, this is really critical and I think often we maybe underestimate how important that is. But there are also tangible, practical aspects of this key stage in one’s life and in one’s scientific life. So just to give an example of something, a program that we’ve implemented here, it’s actually been running for quite some time at the University of Lausanne, recognising this key career step, the life as a postdoc.

When scientists are on parental leave, they can apply for a grant of up to one-year from the university that allows them to then hire a research technician. And then that means that they can train somebody before they leave to take their parental leave. And that person can continue the experiments while they’re not able to. And that is really critical and we have seen that in the outcomes. We have the metrics to then see that this significantly contributes to women remaining in academia, of course, if that’s what they want to do. Practical measures like this that really don’t cost so much and that benefit so many people, the researcher, but also they benefit the technician, who is then taking on this role. These are things that I think we need to implement. And, you know, we’re scientists! We need to approach this logically. We need to have the data, and if the data supports these interventions, then we would ideally like to extend these types of programs elsewhere. Maybe this is also somewhere where the EACR can be involved in terms of supporting such initiatives.

Marisol: I agree, and congratulations on this program. I wish all institutes had that. We’re talking about the issues with maternity and paternity leave. What we’ve seen in Spain, because many women pushed for changes in policy, now the paternity leave is compulsory. So that we thought, wow, it’s going to make a big change in science because you think now men will take time off and it will be equal to hire women and men. And still, we are not there yet. So there’s something beyond just these initial months that you have for conciliation.

And we talked about different things. So one is at the postdoc level and then, uh, in the postdoc, a more senior transition. And then the examples we set. I think this is quite important because still in some minds we have been very active in promoting leadership for women in science. Still, there is a kind of perception that there is a type of leader, these women very committed and it’s true. But I think we also need to work hard to just make attractive our profession, and there are, as in science and other fields, different people, different approaches. Perhaps people that get to a high position tend to be more ambitious in a good way, but we have to change also these perceptions of male attitudes versus female attitudes in leadership, because that also puts some women off in terms of trying to dare to apply.

And we know this issue of women that we don’t feel confident enough, right? So to put ourselves forward for promotion or to ask for promotion also. And we have been working with the EACR and other associations in Spain to be very active in trying to promote different ways of leadership. I think we still have to work on this because then it’s not very clear to many women that this is an attractive position, not only for the salary, but also for the environment. So I agree with the making the environment actually much more appealing.

Johanna: Yeah, I think this also relates to this very famous quote “you cannot be what you cannot see”. And this really underscores the importance of role models, the importance of seeing other people to whatever group you identify yourself with, succeeding in a way that you would like to succeed, right? And all too often we see, particularly for leadership because it’s so entrenched, this is probably the area where we still have to make the most advances.

There are sadly still very, very few women leaders, if we want to use the example of cancer research, very few leaders of the institutes in Europe, as an example, very few heads of department who are women. It’s often called the glass ceiling or the missing rung, that there are just not the same opportunities for women to be embraced in those roles. And I think this is really a challenge. I don’t know if Mireia and Marisol have answers to this, because often the type of leaders that women have shown themselves to be are very effective in a different way.

Marisol: Yeah, but I think something in terms of what can be done, right, and what can we push forward.

Alexandra: My understanding is that once women manage to reach leadership position, there are two main types of behaviors. One would be on the more supportive side, where perhaps you can see women aggregating within the same group, perhaps the same research area, and supporting each other. But I’ve also read that there’s another aspect of it, which was titled as the Queen Bee Effect, where women, perhaps older in age, and it was maybe a bit more difficult for them to become successful and climb their career ladder and they tend to judge younger female researchers rather harshly and have higher expectations from them than they would have from their male counterparts. Is this something that you’ve experienced or something that you would agree happens today?

Marisol: I think it happens. Fortunately, it’s not very frequent because I think nowadays because women, many of us, we have gone through many situations of, maybe not discrimination, but certainly bias or paternalism or getting in a situation where our CVs are not promoted the way they should. So, yes, I have seen this Queen Bee Effect, and it’s hard to handle because now we learned how to address men, that are maybe not supportive, but we are less, I think, prepared somehow, at least some people, to address these kinds of women. So fortunate that there are few. The way when these situations happen, I think that what helps is to be part of associations, part of women in science groups, and then when you discuss this and see actions on how to navigate this.

So to make these women know that you are supported by others. I think we have to learn ourselves to speak up and to not tolerate actions by men or actions by women that are not fair. So these situations happen, but hopefully they are less and less frequent because there are newer generations of women that realise the importance of a network.

Johanna: Yeah, I agree with Marisol. It can happen. As she said, fortunately, it is very rare. My personal experience has been more in the kind of first category, Alexandra, that you mentioned. So the field that I’m in, the tumour microenvironment field, I use this analogy actually a lot, right? That the microenvironment of course is critical for cancer, but it’s also critical for us as scientists. And this field has attracted, for whatever reason, many, many absolutely outstanding women who are also great mentors.

And I think, at least for me, when I was a young postdoc, I found that very attractive about this field, not just the science, but also this very evident network of women leaders who really, in a very tangible way, support younger women. I benefited from that and obviously I tried to pay that forward too. And I think again, as Marisol said, right, we have all experienced explicit and implicit sexism in our careers, sadly. We do not want to see anybody go through this, and speaking for those of us here at least, we try insanely hard to ensure that young women are not exposed to sexist environments.

And I think that that’s what we can do, right? We continue to reinforce that message. You are never going to win over everybody. That’s just human nature, but by the law of numbers, there will be far more of us that stamp out this type of behaviour and that call it out when we see it. And that will encourage other people to do the same. So hopefully there will be less of these unsupported people, and we again ensure that the next generations are also aware of these challenges. So, of course, we hope that they don’t face them at all, or certainly not to the same degree, but there somehow needs to be an awareness because we do not want to, when we make progress, then slide back on that. That’s something we need to really keep our eye on because it can be easy for that to happen.

Marisol: Yes, I would say that these types of women usually are not a threat for very young investigators because they tend to at least show themselves supportive. And it’s typically when you get to a certain level and these are the ones that you have to face. But you see, I think what we have to do is to make sure that we call off this behaviour.

Alexandra: This has been a wonderful conversation and it feels like we were just getting started. It’s a shame that in the interest of time, we have to bring our conversation to an end for the day when we only just managed to define some of the issues surrounding the challenges that women face in research and how we could get over it. Thank you very much for the insights that you chose to share with us today and I am looking forward to continue this conversation in the next episode!

Enjoyed it? Stay curious with The Cancer Researcher Podcast. Subscribe now via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music/Audible, Deezer or YouTube so you’ll never miss an episode. You can find all episodes and their transcripts here.

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