Women in Biology

As you probably know, Royal Holloway College was founded by Thomas Holloway as an all-women college and was among the first places in Britain where women could access higher education.  Although male undergraduates have been admitted since 1965, female students still represent the majority of undergraduate and postgraduate student population at RHUL. However, higher up in academic ladder % of women begins to decrease rather sharply (a phenomenon known as a leaky pipeline, Fig. 1). When I joined RHUL as a lecturer in 2005, there was only one other female lecturer in the department among over 30 members of the academic staff. The situation has improved over the last 15 years and currently our Department of Biological Sciences has 10 female academic staff members, including 3 professors, but this is still only 27% of the academic staff. Our department is not unusual in this respect as across the whole UK, women make only 22% of the STEM workforce. 

Fig. 1. Leaky pipeline: decrease in proportion of women in academia throughout the career progression
Source: Women in Science and Technology, European Commission report

Given that lack of support, isolation and exclusion were identified as some of the causes of the leaky pipeline in academia, in summer 2018 we asked female biology postgraduate students and postdocs to complete an online questionnaire asking whether creating Women in Biology (WiB) initiative at the department was a good idea and what activities would be particularly useful. Over 80% of respondents supported the idea of WiB and the priority areas identified were providing advice about careers in academia and outside and information on realities of women in science (what is it like to be a female academic in biology).  

Women in Biology initiative was officially launched at our department in October 2018. The aim of the scheme is to provide support for personal and professional development of female students and staff (academic, research, technical and administrative) at the Department of Biological Sciences and a forum for discussions and a unified voice to help raise issues and address the career challenges that women face.

Launch meeting of WiB in October 2018.

A variety of activities have been launched within the scheme, including social and fundraising events, discussion meetings and training workshops. As career advice was identified as one of the priority areas in the online questionnaire conducted before the WiB launch, we have organized a number of workshops and one-to one advice sessions with college Careers services. To provide more opportunities for female early career researchers to network and meet role models, we have organized ‘meet the seminar speaker’ sessions after our departmental seminars where undergraduate and postgraduate students can informally meet with our guest speakers, ask questions about their career path and ask for advice. We also offer one-to-one mentoring to early career female researchers. WiB also organised some event together with other women in science groups at RHUL. For instance, in October 2019 we have organised a very well attended Ada Lovelace day together with WISDOM group (Women in the Security domain and/Or Mathematics). Following the recent merger of Departments of Biological Sciences, Geography, Earth Sciences and Psychology into the School of Life Sciences and the Environment, Women in Science initiative has been launched at the School level in autumn 2019 and is coordinated by Prof. Alessandra Devoto and myself. Budget provided within this scheme allowed us to offer a number of female PhD students training within SPRINT programme for personal and professional development for women as well as to organise a media skills workshop for female academic staff.   

One thing that became clear from the start is that we cannot fix the leaky academic pipeline without engagement of male academics. They need to be aware of the biases and other issues faced by their female colleagues and need to become actively engaged in changing the practices which might disadvantage or discriminate women. Therefore we welcome men to our meetings and events and we do have male members in our organizing committee.

Continuing WiB activities in the next academic year will present new challenges due to Covid, but at the same time will open new opportunities as online format might enable us, for instance, to invite inspirational speakers from other countries without incurring costs of hosting them. 

We would very much like to get more engagement with undergraduate students in WiB. If you would like to get involved in WiB and become a member of organising committee or have some suggestions as to what kind of activities would be particularly beneficial for undergraduate students, please email me (Julia.koricheva@rhul.ac.uk), I would be very happy to hear from you.  You can also follow WiB on Twitter @RHULWiB.

Julia Koricheva

Professor of Ecology