Mind the gap: women in research
11 February 2022
The gender gap in research
Women make up around three quarters of the NHS workforce and represent over half of all medical school graduates. Yet women account for just one third of UK researchers working within the medical field.
This disproportionate gender pattern of researchers is seen globally and exists across science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research.
So why does this gender gap exist? And how can we address the imbalance?
A survey conducted by the Royal College of Physicians in 2020 reported that women members and fellows particularly those working less than full time and those working within non-university hospital settings participated in research in disproportionately lower numbers than men (a 12% gap).
This was not for a lack of interest however, with more than one third not research active expressing a desire to participate.
This suggests an untapped research potential. Many stated that a lack of time, inflexible job planning and perceived lack of skills and supportive culture in their organisation were key challenges. Women were also less likely to report formal academic training, a completed higher degree and university funded time at new consultant level. This suggests divergence potentially occurring during training.
These factors are likely to explain why fewer women go on to attain senior leadership roles in research. For example, only 11% of professorial roles are held by women in UK Medical Schools despite a steady increase in the number of women and graduate students entering Medicine. This remains an on-going concern since the importance (and lack of) inspirational role models and mentors are critical in supporting and developing women in research.
My research pathway
My research pathway began in Liverpool in 2004. I scrambled into a research job in, having failed to secure a training number in Neurology through my lack of a completed higher degree.
At the time I didn’t intend to divert from clinical training yet what seemed like an uncertain step turned out to be the most important and career defining three years I have ever worked. I cut my teeth in epilepsy, acquiring analytical skills and became part of a supportive clinical research network. The friends and mentors I made during my higher research degree continue to influence my research pathway and career today.
The vast majority however were men!
Actively seeking out opportunities as a trainee goes a long way with busy consultants and once people are aware of your interest, I found more academic opportunities opened up to me. The best part of being a Consultant Neurologist at Leeds Teaching Hospitals has been joining like-minded women peers and mentors who are passionate for research and have set out to raise the academic bar in Neurology.
In 2011, I joined a research team conducting a handful of research studies in multiple sclerosis with a single research nurse.
Fast forward a decade - we have a portfolio of over 20 studies in epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, movement disorders and headache, a research team of seven, competitive doctorate fellowships and the first Professor of Neurology, who yes, is a woman!
A key aspect for me in taking part in research is the meaningful contribution to improving patient care and being at the forefront of new treatments and innovations in epilepsy.
The intellectual stimulation is appealing and it brings variety to what can sometimes feel like a monotonous clinical job.
The National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) clinical network has been fundamental in providing opportunities to early career researchers. MRC-NIHR academic research partnerships can fund dedicated research time, skills workshops and network opportunities to participate in clinical trials. When I started at Leeds, I took on a phase four portfolio epilepsy study to gain experience. I gradually increased work complexity to include earlier phase studies and commercial studies.
This allows access to local networks, opening up partnership opportunities and expertise to collaborate on your own research projects.
Closing the gap
It’s widely recognised across different organisations that more needs to be done to investigate gender inequalities and understand barriers to medical research participation of women.
The Athena Swan Charter, introduced in 2005 ensured academic institutions promote gender equality, tackling behaviours and cultures detracting from collegiality of study environments for people of all genders.
In the NHS, women clinicians are more likely to work less-than-full-time. This correlates with lower formal employment in research roles. NHS Trusts need to ensure flexible job planning to protect time for clinical research including research delivery in direct clinical care programmed activities.
NIHR networks need to support NHS trusts in enhancing capacity and capability of women researchers who represent an untapped research potential. The NIHR and the Royal College of Physicians have jointly created a postgraduate certificate focusing on practical elements of clinical research. This is part of the NIHR-AoMRC Clinician Researcher Credentials Framework, which provides a practical, Master’s level clinician researcher development programmes aimed at experienced clinicians who are new to research.
In a 2021 publication, the BMA Women in Academic Medicine (WAM) Group shared their successes and challenges in research. Their stories are really inspiring. A common theme in their success was the presence along the way of supportive mentors. By providing research mentorship we can inspire, support and develop the next generation of women researchers, something I am passionate to make happen.
I hope my story provides at some inspiration to female trainees and new female consultants coming through who may not wish to be full-time academics but want to develop an academic branch to their NHS job role.
With a flexible, supportive work environment, protected research time together with positive enthusiasm, it is possible for all women working within the NHS to get involved in research.
This can only benefit professionals and patient care in the long run.
Dr Melissa Maguire MD FRCP is a Consultant Neurologist at Leeds Teaching Hospitals and NIHR Specialty lead in Neurological Disorders for Yorkshire and Humber.
She holds the honorary title of Clinical Associate Professor in Neurology at the University of Leeds.