The proportion of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields has increased substantially in recent years, but there remains a great deal more work to be done to ensure equal representation between sexes. This International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we’re looking at how women are still marginalised in STEM fields, highlighting some key success stories of women in science – and examining where the medical communications industry fits in.
Inequality in recognition for contribution to research
Women make up more than half of students in most biomedical sciences, from veterinary science (77%) to clinical dentistry (59%) to pharmacology, toxicology and pharmacy (61%). However, this representation does not always translate into long-term career progression. Only 33% of scientific researchers worldwide are women, and research has shown that women are underrepresented as authors of academic articles. In spite of a growing movement in recent years to increase the participation of women and girls in scientific fields, a 2022 study found that disciplines with higher levels of female representation were more likely to be categorised as ‘soft sciences’, which led to their receiving reduced funding and lower salaries.
While the COVID-19 pandemic both underlined and exacerbated existing forms of sex discrimination worldwide, the fields of medical research and public health saw ‘breakthrough’ representation in several key positions – from the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce chair Kate Bingham, to Helen Clark and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the international Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, through to Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green, who spearheaded the development of the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
Positive representation isn’t just limited to COVID-19 research: shortly before the pandemic began, anthropologist Dr Heidi Larson published Stuck: How Vaccine Rumours Start – and Why They Don’t Go Away, a comprehensive overview of the factors affecting vaccine refusal and misinformation. Later in 2020, Drs Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna became the first all-female team to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on the ‘revolutionary’ CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology. In 2018, Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak, the University of Glasgow’s first female Regius Professor of Medicine, co-hosted the first Precision Medicine Summit in Scotland, aimed at driving innovation and promoting investment in the field.
Unequal representation in clinical trials
Furthermore, women have historically been overlooked as patients in clinical research, leading to inadequate assessment of sex-specific risks with potentially negative health impacts, such as increased rates of adverse drug reactions in women1 as a result of dosing based on male physiology. While the inclusion of women in clinical trials is now strongly recommended in most fields2, reporting of study outcomes frequently does not disaggregate data by sex – meaning that, if results differ significantly between men and women, that difference may not be noticed or recorded.
In studies where data is appropriately stratified by sex, such as a 2021 University of Mexico review3 of the effects of oestrogen on lung cancer, the results are not only more inclusive, but have also led to valuable observations around optimum treatments for female patients. Treatment with antioestrogen receptor inhibitors was found to significantly increase the survival rate of women who had been diagnosed with lung cancer, as well as improving the clinical benefits of chemotherapy and tyrosine kinase inhibitors.
Women in medical communications
When we look at STEM paths outside academia and clinical research, we can see that certain fields are more welcoming to women. The field of medical communications, for example, boasts a considerably greater proportion of women than academia or clinical research – the Spirit team is more than 60% female, while 60% of the top executive positions at our parent company OPEN Health are held by women!
While we can’t comprehensively list all the aspects that draw women towards this industry, a few key benefits do stand out: women we’ve spoken to in the industry highlighted the opportunities offered to contribute to exciting and groundbreaking innovations in science, and to participate in research into new and emerging developments within the field. They also praised supportive work environments and a sector-wide sense of community, and the variety and diversity of projects on offer mean that there is always an opportunity to learn and progress.
- Zucker I, Prendergast BJ. Sex differences in pharmacokinetics predict adverse drug reactions in women. Biol Sex Differ 2021;11(32). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13293-020-00308-5
- Kocher K, Delot-Vilain A, Spencer D, LoTempio J, Délot EC. Paucity and Disparity of Publicly Available Sex-Disaggregated Data for the COVID-19 Epidemic Hamper Evidence-Based Decision-Making. Arch Sex Behav. 2021;50(2):407-426. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01882-w
- Rodriguez-Lara V, Avila-Costa MR. An Overview of Lung Cancer in Women and the Impact of Estrogen in Lung Carcinogenesis and Lung Cancer Treatment. Front Med https://doi.org/10.3389/fmed.2021.600121