Why aren’t there more BAME women scientists in senior positions?

A University of Bath undergraduate has co-created a series of eye-opening podcasts exploring the challenges facing BAME women working in life sciences.

  • Last updated on Friday 8 January 2021

An undergraduate student at the University of Bath has co-created a series of eye-opening podcasts exploring the challenges facing BAME women working in life sciences.

For the series, final-year biomedical sciences student Yasmin Wafai interviewed 12 women pursuing successful careers in science. Each interview offers a different perspective on the roadblocks encountered by women scientists from ethnic minority backgrounds, and describes strategies for overcoming the challenges.

Ms Wafai, who put together the series for her final year project, said: "It was interesting that the women I interviewed had very similar opinions on the barriers that BAME women face in science, despite coming from many different walks of life. They also gave very similar advice on how the current situation can be improved."

The podcast guests agreed that female BAME scientists are underrepresented in senior positions, and face racial and gender prejudices. Many of the guests emphasised the role played by self-confidence and self-belief in overcoming these challenges. They called for girls to be given more encouragement to study science. They also stressed the importance of educating children from a young age about the career-limiting impact of unconscious bias.

Dr Vasanta Subramanian , associate professor in Developmental Genetics at Bath, Yasmins’s supervisor and co-creator of the podcast series, said she hoped the podcasts would help "mitigate biases and ensure fair recognition of achievements."

She said: "The lack of ethnic and gender diversity in academia is very striking, particularly at senior levels, yet diversity is associated with improved innovation, team efficiency and performance at work."

Dr Subramanian, who features in one of the podcasts and whose laboratory hosted the podcast series, added: "One of things that the podcasts emphasise is that inclusivity and diversity cannot be achieved entirely through individual endeavours. It is essential for universities and research institutes to recognise the issues too, and the onus is on these institutions to educate those in power."

When Dr Subramanian moved to England 1989 as a postdoc after studying Biochemistry in India, she was amazed by the underrepresentation of women scientists working in senior academic positions.

She said: "In India, it was not uncommon to come across women in top jobs, including senior division heads and directors of institutes. The low number of women in such positions in the UK was quite a contrast.

"Studies show that women comprise 50% or more at the undergraduate level in life sciences such as Biology and Biochemistry and female PhD holders outnumber men in Europe, however women hold only 20% of senior positions, which means women remain underrepresented in decision-making positions.

"When we look at ethnic minority women in senior positions - associate professors and above - the numbers are dismal. This is a matter of concern with regards to diversity and inclusivity. What is more, there is a paucity of role models for students from ethnic minority backgrounds to inspire them to pursue STEM subjects in school and in higher education.

"It was with this in mind that we decided to create podcasts with senior women in life sciences, representing the different ethnic groups within Europe. We hope the experiences shared by our role models will inspire students to see a career in STEM as a fulfilling one. We also hope it will give them an idea of how to go about navigating their way to senior academic positions."

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