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The Challenges Women Face in Pursuing a Career in STEM

Guro E. Lind is a group leader at the Institute for Cancer Research, Oslo University Hospital and a professor at the University of Oslo. We caught up with her at the 4Bio Summit to find out what she thinks needs to be done to achieve gender equality for women in STEM. 

Can you tell us about your research?

I work with cancer epigenetics, so we are very much focused on trying to identify and develop biomarkers that could genetically mean a different symptom management of the cancer patients, for instance early detection of cancer disease, which will impact the survival of the patients or more efficient ways of how we can monitor the patient groups for recurrence, treatment responses, and many other aspects.

What has been the most exciting moment of your career?

I don’t know because there are so many exciting moments in science: from really the small ones when your experiments work out, or when you found the perfect biomarker that is actually going to be of use for the clinic, to things like getting your paper accepted. It’s not necessarily the big things; it’s all the small things that make it so great.

The theme for International Women’s Day is Press for Progress. What do you think needs to be done to achieve progress for women in science?

We have to continue to work on it. When you look at the statistics, it’s very bad. We have so many talented, young women doing great work at PhD level, who are starting to outnumber the guys at post-doctorate level. Then, when we look at the professor level, it’s devastatingly low. The $100,000 question is: what should do we do about it?

It’s a very complex problem, but we should start looking more into the structures because, until now, we have been looking at how we can motivate people to push them in the right direction. A lot of the debate revolves around women’s many responsibilities in the family and that we have to encourage them. But, that is treating the problem on the shoulders of the young excellent females that are out there.

Instead, we should make it just a systemic problem. Why is the system failing these brilliant young women? We still have a lot of work to do to achieve gender equality. We seem to believe in that gender bias or equal opportunities for the sexes, and in reality, we do not.

I, myself, had an experience recently where I had five members of a committee that encouraged me to apply for a professorship in epigenetics. I’m already a professor in epigenetics, but I was curious so I applied for it. I put a lot of effort into the application, and when they nominated candidates for interviews, they had listed seven candidates, all male, and I was not on the list.

How did that make you feel?

Even though I come from a North European country, where we have a really good gender balance, it made me realise that we have systematic flaws in our systems, and we really have to fix that because we cannot continue to tell women that, “You just have to push harder. You just have to study better.”

I’m also deeply saddened by the way that institutions try to work on gender balance, but what they typically offer is grant-writing courses for women. I get so upset by this because the system is saying that, “There’s obviously something wrong with the women, less skilled than, so skillsets that they do not have.” It’s not because women cannot write applications. We have a huge job in front of us. We cannot rest.

It’s about creating equal opportunities.

I think people need to realise that we really have a problem and that society needs to want to change this because why are we educating, spending so much money on education if we are going to lose such a large part of the female population when it comes to the higher positions in society?

What is your advice to young women thinking about a career in science?

Do it! It’s great. I would recommend it to all young scientists, not just women.

In Norway, only 20% of PhD graduates move forward in careers in research and development, so 80% of the candidates they aren’t pursuing careers in the private sector or the public sector.

You can work in science outside of academia and still have a great job and great opportunities.

It’s just that the transitions are so hard. I see a lot of young, brilliant people just aiming for the academic career, which is great, but then they often find themselves in a pinch because they don’t get the opportunities that they wanted.

I think it’s particularly women that feel this kind of clinch because they have worked really, really hard, and then for some reason, they found kind of either the system is not making opportunities for them, or there is some reason why they feel maybe that their career is too tough.

You should be able to create your dream job. Instead, what we see is that people often settle for something that they really didn’t want as their first choice. That is something I would advise everyone to do: think what you really want to work on, look at opportunities outside of academia, and make sure you have a backup plan.

There should be a much stronger collaboration between the sectors and the universities, who should actively inquire what skills the sectors need from their candidates and then the universities can pick the candidates with the skillsets. It’s fairly simple, it’s just not being done.  This is problematic because universities are managing these resources we have for the society. They are cherry-picking for themselves, turning it into a big hamster race to see who will stay in the wheel the longest, and they will be promoted. For the others, there is no backup plan.

This is an ethical dilemma because universities should take responsibility for everyone and not only those that make it into the professor positions and tenured tracks to make sure that all students have the best jobs that are available.

In Norway, we are seeing a reduced interest in research careers. I’m a member of the Young Academy of Norway. There’s many Young Academies around the world, and we have made a survey among young scientists below 38 years of age. We have gotten answers from more than 800 young scientists and less than half of them can actually recommend a scientific career to others, which is grave. This is in Norway, where the PhD is paid. It’s a fully paid job. You’re not a student. You are working, and you get the same social benefits as everybody else, and you know the salaries are really high.

Why choose to have careers in science when there is so much uncertainty, so many temporary positions, such a hard passage into sectors, and salaries in the later years aren’t that competitive compared to these personal risks you are taking?

As a society, we need to look at this with great alarm, and we have to start thinking how we can make the scientist’s career more attractive again.

Sign up for our qPCR and Digital PCR newsletter for the latest news and articles or take a look at the International Women’s Day website for more interviews with inspirational women.  

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