Breaking the Test Tube Ceiling

Print 05 April 2016
Josh Baxt / San Diego Magazine

Women in the life sciences are moving up the ladder—just not fast enough



At a recent high school night, curious middle schoolers and parents listened intently as schools talked up their programs. The speeches were formulaic, and mercifully brief, but at one point, the rep from a technology-oriented high school targeted a specific audience. “Girls,” she said, “don’t let the tech part scare you.”

Awkward as it was, the pitch encapsulated two opposing forces affecting women’s participation in the sciences: the desire to recruit them, and the biases that could keep them away.

Googling “women in STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and math) produces 196 million results, many highlighting their lack of representation. That’s the view from 80,000 feet, but what’s the situation at ground level? Where are we in the inclusion process, and how can we make the system better?

Beyond the Sexist Clichés

Elizabeth Blackburn is the new president of the Salk Institute and a Nobel laureate, but she still recalls the time, many years ago, when a male teacher talked down to her.

“He said, ‘Why is a nice girl like you going into science?’” remembers Blackburn. “That was indicative of the attitudes people had. In Australia, women weren’t seen as having the same abilities as men. I didn’t jump down his throat; I didn’t know how, so I just kept quiet. It made my resolve even stronger.”


The overt, clichéd sexism Blackburn encountered in the ’60s and ’70s may have been replaced by more subtle forms of bias. Erica Ollmann Saphire, a professor at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and a leader in a worldwide consortium of Ebola researchers, notes that subconscious biases can stunt careers.

“When people think of scientists, they think of white-haired men,” says Ollmann Saphire. “And when asked to come up with a name to give a lecture or receive an award, they often come up with someone who fits that description. If you’re missing out on some of those awards or some of those opportunities to speak based on your gender, even if it’s inadvertent, it can cripple you in the long run.”

“Girls,” she said, “don’t let the tech part scare you.”

A number of studies have shown that these biases may be part of the research landscape. One published in 2012 by professor Corinne-Moss Racusin randomly assigned male and female names to identical applications for lab manager positions. The “male” applicants were hired more often and offered higher starting salaries. The “women” were viewed as less competent.

An internal report by Hewlett-Packard found that men tend to apply for jobs when they meet the majority of the qualifications. Women only apply when they meet all of them.

“This is self-crippling behavior,” notes Ollmann Saphire. “On the other hand, wouldn’t you rather work with someone who has a more realistic idea of their own abilities?”

Embracing the Challenge

For women trying to advance in the life sciences, bias can be part of the background noise to their careers, along with scarce faculty positions, funding challenges, or scientific dead ends. Sometimes, the best way forward is to focus on the work.

“I think I had a pretty independent mind,” says Blackburn. “I was a little rebellious. I heard it, but I didn’t want to hear it. So I just kept a low profile and pursued my interests.”

That commitment to good science can be a powerful countermeasure, inspiring a “damn the torpedoes” mindset that helps some women push through.


“When you walk into a boardroom or get up on the podium to give a presentation, people may make judgments about your gender or how tall you are or whatever,” says Dena Marrinucci, co-founder and chief scientific officer at Epic Sciences. “For a split second, you’re going against that judgment. To overcome it, you just have to prepare really well. Some people say women have to work harder in this industry. I tend to agree—to a point.”

On the other hand, that judgment can slice both ways. Ollmann Saphire went through a gradual evolution, from blending in as a graduate student and postdoc in sweatshirt and jeans to recognizing there can be strength in taking a more feminine approach.

“One of the things about being a female biophysicist is you’re unique; there’s no line for the ladies room at the biophysics conferences, says Ollmann Saphire. “So if everyone presenting is older and white and wearing black or navy or brown, and you show up and you’re young and wearing raspberry, you make an impression. Of course, you still have to say something really smart.”

A Costly Brain Drain

Walk into many labs in San Diego and you’ll find women working side by side with men. But do the same experiment in a boardroom or an executive suite and the results can be quite different.

“You look at how girls do in school: They’re top students. Then in the workforce, they tend to drop out,” says Magda Marquet, who co-founded Althea Technologies. “The expectations we have for ourselves can stop us sometimes. If you want to have a career in upper management, and you want a family, it can be very hard. You can only make it if you learn how to ask for help and delegate.”

A recent survey in Australia found that a third of women in STEM fields expected to leave within five years. Women with families seemed hardest hit, with many finding few avenues for advancement.


“Women finish their PhDs, but the dropouts start pretty much after the postdoctoral phase,” notes Blackburn. “This is a disturbing reality. After all that tremendous training, women have to make a choice. How can I have a full life: How can I have a family life and make it work with the science life?”

For some, the decision to choose family over science can be irrevocable, as the field moves at warp speed, and a few years away can cement them as outsiders. Blackburn believes the research community must adopt new models to support both families and science.

“In the U.S., we’re losing people because they can’t see a way through,” says Blackburn. “How can you stay in science when it’s all or nothing? You can do very effective science part-time if it’s arranged smartly.

Moving the Needle

Being successful in the life sciences has a number of components: good education, creativity, hard work, committed mentors.

As a young scientist, Blackburn was recruited by Frederick Sanger, who twice won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Marrinucci worked for Peter Kuhn at TSRI, who entrusted her with great autonomy.

Still, there’s a growing recognition that female mentors can help young women navigate some of these barriers.

“Without women role models, you may try to act like a man in the boardroom or in a management meeting,” says Marquet. “That’s not very efficient, because one of the keys to leadership is integrity—you have to be yourself and not be afraid to express your feminine energy.”

“When people think of scientists, they think of white-haired men.”

To help women put this into practice, Marquet volunteers with Athena, a nonprofit that provides mentoring and programs to help women develop networking, management, and other skills. Marrinucci regularly attends Athena’s Forums for Executive Women group to share ideas.

“I think I’d get a lot out of it if it were coed, but when it’s just women, it’s easier to talk freely and get feedback because everyone has been through something similar,” says Marrinucci.

There are other efforts taking root in San Diego. The Salk Women & Science program helps emerging scientists develop their networks. TSRI’s Network for Women in Science also offers career development role models. These programs provide support, but they also encourage women to learn the art of tasteful self-promotion.

“Early in my career, I thought my boss would just notice when I was doing a good job and give me a promotion,” says Marquet. “But it doesn’t work that way, and men understand that better than we do. They invest in building relationships, talk more openly about their achievements and career aspirations, and are somehow more proactive in building their careers. Women tend not to do that.”


These programs are not isolated to the nonprofit sphere. Gaylene Xanthopoulos is founder and president of The Leadership Edge, which offers training and other programs to help executives and companies succeed.

“We’re seeing a lot of different companies stepping up and acknowledging that 40 or 45 percent of their employees are women,” says Xanthopoulos, “and yet their leadership is overwhelmingly male.”

Xanthopoulos’s group often supports corporate efforts to level the playing field. That might include helping a female executive develop her leadership style, or reviewing the corporate culture to identify problems.

And while there are many examples of women succeeding in the life sciences, the lack of board membership is a persistent barrier. Once again, subtle biases creep into the process. It’s just easier for selection committees to choose the guy they’ve known for 20 years.

“I’m still pretty disappointed in the board side of things,” says Xanthopoulos. “Sometimes we’re asked to suggest potential board members. They may throw a female candidate in for the first round, but they ultimately go with the old Genentech guy. It’s frustrating.”



All Portfolio


  • NovaMedica began construction of a pharmaceutical plant in the Kaluga region

    NovaMedica began construction of a pharmaceutical plant in the Kaluga region

    Russian pharmaceutical company NovaMedica, a portfolio company of RUSNANO, announces the start of construction of a plant for the production of sterile injectable drugs as part of its long-term strategy to localize innovative medicines and technologies of their development and production in Russia. The plant will be built in the industrial park “Vorsino” in the Kaluga region.

All news