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IHI celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

For the International Day of Women and Girls In Science, we spoke to some of the women working with IHI and IMI to hear how funding organisations can help women to thrive.

07 February 2024
Researcher teaching child about science. Image credit: Inside Creative House.
Researcher teaching child about science. Image credit: Inside Creative House.

From Katalin Kariko to Miriam Friedman Menkin to Emanuelle Charpentier to Ruth Nussenzsweig, women continue to make strong contributions to science and research, despite the discrimination, challenges and constraints that make it difficult.

Although women represent almost half of all doctoral graduates in the EU, the glass ceiling still exists. The number of women in research leadership roles is much lower than men, with women accounting for only 26.2% of full professors in higher education institutes in 2019. Women scientists typically receive smaller research grants than men, women’s work is underrepresented in high-profile journals and they are often passed over for promotion.

At the Innovative Health Initiative, we support the work of women scientists and we encourage women researchers to apply for our grants and get involved in our projects. Ensuring that more women thrive in science requires a multi-faceted approach – active participation must be supported at all levels. Currently, all three of our governance bodies are headed by women.

How funding organisations can help women researchers to thrive

In honour of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we asked some of the leading women scientists involved in IHI and IMI about how funding organisations like ours can help women to thrive in scientific careers. Here’s what they said:

  1. Demonstrate a clear commitment to gender equality and foster inclusive cultures

When shaping calls for proposals, it is necessary to have a clear commitment to gender equality in mind,” says Irene Norstedt, director of the People Directorate within the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation at the European Commission, who is also the Chair of the IHI Governing Board. “This is how research funding bodies, such as IHI, can make a difference in driving institutional change to create a gender-equal, safe and inclusive organisational culture in R&I.”

Natalie Virag, head of external funding at Medtronic and vice-chair of IHI’s Governing Board, agrees, saying: “It is important to actively work towards creating an inclusive and supportive environment for women in the scientific community. This can be done by promoting a culture of inclusion and diversity, offering professional development opportunities to help women advance in their careers and supporting mentorship and networking for women researchers.”

“Whatever role, whatever organisation you are working in there should be gender equality,” says Nathalie Moll, executive director at IHI industry member EFPIA. “There will be moments in everyone's lives where they will need support - men and women. Whether this is to facilitate childcare, to support long hours or a period of sickness. We all need to make sure that our organisations are set up to do this, depending on peoples' individual needs.”

  1. Monitor and publish the data to identify gaps

“Continuously collecting, analysing and publishing the data on grant applications, funding awards, and career progression will help identify disparities,” says Annette Bakker, President of the Children’s Tumor Foundation, who took part in the IMI EU-PEARL project that developed a new type of platform trial that could accelerate the development of new therapies for rare diseases.

“Funding organisations such as IHI have a responsibility to monitor, encourage and safeguard gender balance and participation across all research projects. It is important to also ensure that this balance occurs at all levels from senior researchers to junior researchers,” says IHI’s chairperson of the States’ Representatives Group, Martha Cahill.

  1. Fund research that affects mainly women

In health there are many issues that affect only women, and funding organisations should ensure that they are supported. “Research into areas which predominately affect women, such as breast cancer, should be prioritised," says Cahill.

  1. Give women the opportunity to lead and boost the visibility of women researchers

“Women can thrive in science if we ensure that there is extensive outreach and support from the earliest days of research idea development. We need to ensure that women lead, and are seen to lead, so that we reach a gender balance across senior positions through bringing ambitious younger researchers to the forefront,” says Claire Skentelbery, executive director of EuropaBio and member of IHI’s Governing Board.

To inspire younger women researchers to pursue leadership positions, “funders can actively promote good examples and statistics that show female leadership across scientific disciplines,” says Lynn Rochester, professor of human movement science at Newcastle University and coordinator of the IMI Mobilise-D project, which is developing new ways of monitoring people’s gait based on digital technologies. “By making women more visible, this sends a strong message that the [funding organisations] take this seriously and brings the added advantage of a ‘role model effect’, attracting more women into science.”

Tips for young women for a successful career in health research

We also asked our women scientists what advice they would give to a young woman embarking on a career in health research – what steps can you take on a personal level to achieve success? If you’re a young woman scientist, this is for you.

  1. Look out for organisations that support gender equality

“Gender inequalities persist, but many research organisations are working towards systemic change to guarantee equal opportunities and a fair career progression,” says Norstedt. “At the start of your career, consider joining organisations that have adopted and are actively implementing a gender equality plan.”

  1. Be yourself; and treasure your individuality

“It’s important to be yourself; I have never considered that being a woman would be an obstacle to a career in science,” says Moll. “In 2024 no one should ever have to face discrimination based on gender. Do not conform to stereotypes. Our individuality is our strength whatever your gender, preference or passion is.”

  1. Be open, ask for help, learn as you grow, and build your network

“Seek out and be open to opportunities, build a diverse and supportive network to nurture and guide you; and don’t be afraid to ask for help,” says Rochester. “If you have any remaining doubts – remember - science needs you!”

“Find and follow your passions and interests, work hard, be curious and find role models,” says Moll. “Learning from good - and bad practice - is what will shape your future self.”

“Believe in yourself, be persistent,” says Virag. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support along the way. Keep learning and connecting with other researchers in your field.”

“Female networks, mentorship programmes, focused events and other specific financial incentives have been hugely beneficial in encouraging women in research and business,” says Cahill. “Young women and researchers should expand their networks and seek mentorships from as many sources as possible when starting and growing their research career.”

  1. Start with education and encourage men to share the workload at home

    “I have seen too many brilliant young women dropping out because of the family,” says Marta Alarcón Riquelme, coordinator of the IMI 3TR project, which seeks to understand at the molecular level why some patients with autoimmune or inflammatory conditions do not respond to treatment. “Make sure that men participate a lot more in bringing up children. And if you have children, boys or girls, make sure they know that boys should also take care of children and do things at home, just like girls.”
  2. Be fearless, and take the leadership opportunities that present themselves

    “Step to the front and don’t hesitate to lead projects, events, and anything else that helps build leadership skills and positions,” says Skentelbery. “Be the person who steps up and don’t be scared to have a go.”

    “Be passionate and crazy enough to believe that you can change the world!” says Bakker. “Be resilient and don't be discouraged by failures. The path to the Nobel Prize is paved with lessons learned from setbacks.”

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