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The 2019/2020 MRC WIMM Women in Leadership cohort with Milly Sinclair (middle)
The 2019/2020 MRC WIMM Women in Leadership cohort with Milly Sinclair (middle)

MRC WIMM Diversity & Inclusion LogoWhy are so few women at the top of the academic career ladder, despite the clear importance of gender diversity for any workforce? Here, Prof Catherine Porcher, chair of the MRC WIMM Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) committee and organiser of our first Women in Leadership programme, tells us more about the problem, and participants of the course share their experience.

Today, gender diversity is widely recognised as essential for the success of any organisation, and ever more women are celebrated for their leadership skills.

As examples, a study looking at London-listed companies demonstrated that, when women made up more than one third of executive roles, the company was much more profitable – a striking 10 times greater than those with fewer women. In political institutions, increasing women’s representation warrants more inclusive decision-making and stable democracies. Even in times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic we currently face, female political leaders have been admired for their impressive leadership skills, showing empathy, decisiveness and results-oriented actions.

Yet, only 14 of the 350 largest companies listed in the above study are currently led by women.  And only 22 countries across the world are governed by women (as of September 2020). 

The leaky pipeline in STEM careers

This hierararchical challenge, often defined as glass ceiling, is also observed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers, where the lack of female leaders is manifest. Although gender parity is observed in early career stages (slightly more than half of graduates and PhD students in life sciences are females), this balance gradually crumbles as we climb up the academic ladder and, today, women only hold 23% of Professor faculty positions in STEM disciplines in the UK. Despite improvement over the past decade (such as increased representation of women in influential executive positions, on senior management committees, at conferences), this so-called “leaky pipeline” is an endemic problem leading to the loss of a large pool of talented women in scientific institutions. This gender gap reduces diversity of perspectives and ideas within research teams, thus limiting the scope for creativity and innovation. The causes for this attrition have been well analysed over the years. They encompass historical, cultural, social and psychological aspects, amongst others.

How do we fix this? How do we make sure that post-graduate women scientists embrace academic careers in a culture of fairness and inclusion and that institutions are able to retain female scientists and help them advance into leadership positions? Key interventions have been identified, as recently reported by Advance HE (UK Equality Challenge Unit), such as establishing codes of practice to remove unconscious bias (when hiring/promoting/funding/publishing), promoting culture changes and adopting innovative approaches in terms of professional development (worshops taylored for women scientists, research-based training programmes). These transformations will help women better define their career objectives, unlock and channel their full potential and face the challenges.

 Our Women in Leadership course

To tackle some of these issues, the MRC WIMM D&I committee recently organised a Women in Leadership programme. The course was skilfully run by Milly Sinclair, an executive coach working in the areas of leadership, pressure management, stress and resilience. The initiative was fully supported by Professors Higgs and Cerundolo, at the time Directors of WIMM/MHU and HIU, respectively.

This programme aimed at providing female postdocs aspiring to become PIs, as well as those who may not aim to climb the academic ladder to the top but still intend to hold positions of responsibility, with tools and resources to help them become effective leaders.

It included three types of sessions that constructively complemented each other:

-          Group sessions, focusing on “leading ourselves” (defining career goals, understanding own core values and strengths, practicing leadership presence) and “leading others” (mentoring, dealing with conflicts, exploring the power of body language/emotion/mood in relationships).

-          One-to-one coaching sessions, to discuss individual objectives and challenges.

-          Action learning sessions, to learn peer support strategies and create a cohesive group of women who will become ambassadors for other women in the WIMM. 

Unlike other programmes of this kind, which usually run over 3 or 4 consecutive days, this course was spread over 5 months, allowing participants to reflect on their goals and test different strategies and actions in-between sessions, thus consolidating new concepts and skills as the programme unfolded.

Did it work? How much did the participants benefit from the programme and were they able to translate some of their learning into proactive attitudes and actions?

Dr Simona Valletta, post-doctoral research fellow, shares her experience;

“If you asked me to think about a programme that could empower women and support them in their academic journey, I would imagine exactly the Women in Leadership programme, with as brilliant an executive coach as Milly Sinclair. I’m a woman passionate about smashing glass ceilings, recently being awarded a KKLF Intermediate Fellowship. But I’m aware this is only one side of the coin, and that, for women aspiring to scientific leadership, the road is rougher than it is for men.”

Being authentic is the key for leadership

At this stage of my career, the leading-self session was crucial to reflect on my strengths and weaknesses. There is a common idea that, as female leaders, we should wear a male uniform, adopting stereotypically masculine traits. What I learnt instead is that everyone can have his/her own idea of leadership: we can be excellent leaders showing empathy, being sensitive, paying attention to creating a good work environment, and on the other hand show competitiveness and charisma, giving directions to motivate employees and accepting challenges. 

The three pillars of a successful leadershipThe three pillars of a successful leadership

Gender differences in leadership styles do exist, but being authentic is essential to be effective leaders, focusing on our unique skills and strengths. This, combined with the right dosage of vulnerability (exposing our values and accepting our limitations) and authority (being assertive but not bossy), is the recipe for success. This is one of the numerous and invaluable messages that Milly shared with us and we will endeavour to pass it on to our women colleagues.”

The importance of peer support

“Another important aspect about this programme was that we were able to build a strong peer group, supporting and empowering each other. I’m sure that our group will put in lots of effort in encouraging other women to speak up, be more confident, and show what they’re good at.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet men in leadership positions and male mentors who never made me feel wrong or different; I strongly believe that if we really want to overcome the gender stereotype of science, men at the top are called to play an important role in this, making a joint effort together with us in inspiring/supporting women in succeeding in their goals.”

Postdoctoral research fellow Dr Margarida Rei also shares key points she put into practice from the programme;

Small steps can lead to big changes

“The course taught me that a change in culture can start now, with our own change in attitude and behaviour. For example; to listen and to amplify the voices of women in meetings and seminars by encouraging them to speak and share their opinions; to sit in the front rows of seminar rooms and invite our female colleagues to join us; to highlight the contributions of female colleagues in our publications; to improve childcare conditions and career opportunities for mothers. These small gestures can have a real impact on women’s careers and inspire other women, and men, to follow them.

The climb to the top can be tough going for anyone and the best gender equality intervention is to focus on equality of talent and potential. The most crucial element that has to change, even if progress has been made so far, is that gender should never be a factor to determine whether or not a person can be a great leader.”

To make sure the coming years see significant changes, it is everyone’s responsibility to take any opportunity to support and mentor women scientists, increase their visibility and celebrate their successes. Women also need to step forward and express their voice, and programmes such as our Women in Leadership course will empower them to do so. Finally, and more globally, every effort should be made to widely embrace diversity (diversity in backgrounds, in ways of thinking, in aspirations) to create fully inclusive and fertile workplaces.


This piece has been a collaborative effort by some of those involved in the course, with the text worked on by Michela Colombo, Mara Artibani, Margarida Rei, Simona Valetta and Catherine Porcher.