The Life Science sector in Scotland currently employs more than 37,000 people in 700 companies and is set to expand considerably over the next 6 years. The importance of the sector to employment and the Scottish Economy cannot be underestimated.

With women outnumbering men in many Life Science subjects in Scotland’s universities, and being well represented at career entry through to middle management level, there can be a perception that Life Science doesn’t experience the leaky pipeline issue that is so well documented across other areas of STEM, despite the fact that the 20% gender pay gap in science would suggest otherwise.
The picture changes the higher up the career ladder we look; despite the numbers of women studying and working in the Life Sciences, they make up only around 10% of senior scientists in UK universities, government labs, public science bodies and industry. The reasons behind the gender imbalance at a leadership level are complex. The competitive nature of research and development leads to inflexible work patterns, and long working hours combined with unconscious and sometimes conscious bias has a disproportionate impact on women in the sector.

The business case for diversity in leadership is clear; companies with greater diversity at board level experience greater profitability, better innovation, attract the best candidates and retain the talent they have. As the journal Elsivar put it ‘‘Diversity adds to the collective intelligence of a research group, and not only enhances creativity, but also provides new contexts for understanding the societal relevance of the research itself’.

If Scotland is to achieve the ambitious targets outlined in the Life Science Strategy for Scotland, then women need to be part of the picture at every level.
So what can employers do to tackle this imbalance at the top? Equate Scotland’s latest sector specific resource ‘Women in Life Science – A Best Practice Guide for Employers’ offers practical advice on steps employers can take to retain and progress women working in the sector, including guidance on how to create inclusive workplaces and how to implement positive action measures that provide equal access to career development and progression opportunities.
We know that access to career development and progression opportunities often happen through the informal networks that men are more likely to belong to. And that women are less likely to be offered mentoring support whereas men are 46% more likely to have access to guidance and support from senior leadership.

Positive action measures can level the playing field, but employers understandably have concerns about crossing the line from positive action, which can be an effective and lawful way to address the gender imbalance in an organisation, into positive discrimination which is of course unlawful. The new guide sets out the distinction between the two, and outlines the process for gathering evidence of why positive action is taking place.

In the case of Life Science, the data is clear – while women make up 44.5% of Life Sciences Academics, only 20% of Life Science Professors are female and only 13.9% of Senior Managers are women. This provides evidence that women are facing additional barriers to reaching senior positions, and it is therefore reasonable to take action to address these barriers.

By taking steps to ensure workplaces are inclusive, that women have access to support networks, and taking a strategic approach to women’s access to mentoring, coaching and sponsorship, employers can begin to address the imbalance in senior roles. Illustrated by a range of case studies from industry and academia, the ‘Women in Life Science – A Best Practice Guide for Employers’ provides an overview of the range of activities that will ensure that women are more likely to stay in the sector and that they are better represented at the top.