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Smashing stereotypes: The quest to improve gender equality for female early career researchers

For International Women’s Day, Mirae Harford, a specialist registrar in intensive care medicine and former NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow, writes about the challenges of female early career researchers and how funders can break the bias against women in research.

Most days I wear two hats. I’m an intensive care medicine and anaesthetics doctor, and a final year NIHR PhD student with a broader interest in improving clinical monitoring. I am also a wife to Phil and a mummy to two children who are five and two. 

When I introduce myself, I rarely talk about my family. It’s not that my roles at home are less important to me, but on some level, I worry about being automatically stereotyped. I’ve found that women get stereotyped into false binary extremes. Either you are ‘pro-career’ and ruthless, or you are ‘pro-family’ and not capable of pulling your weight at work because you spend all day thinking about your children. This is unhelpful, unfair, and untrue.  

Challenges for female early career researchers 

There are many aspects of being a female early career researcher that I find challenging. Some of these apply to all my contemporaries. As a clinician, I am still ‘learning the trade’. In my academic time, I am also trying to learn what questions to ask and how to answer them, how to write, how to present, how to ask for money, how to teach, and how to collaborate.  

Other challenges – at least in my experience – are more applicable to female early career researchers. I have had two maternity leaves, and while they were some of the happiest periods of my life, they posed significant challenges in academic workflow and required planning. I asked other female academics about how to maximise efficiency around maternity leave. I edited manuscripts while my newborn baby was napping, whilst carefully planning my return to work in the most efficient way.

It is well known that the pandemic has both highlighted and widened the gap between male and female academics, with the latter taking on more of the caring responsibility for home schooling and carers leave and sacrificing academic progress.

I used to think it was a sign of weakness to admit that I find these things difficult. But I think it is important we talk about it at an organisational level and try to make systemic improvements, rather than talk to individuals about resilience and expect them to cope. My female insight makes our male-dominated research team stronger and I should be supported to be present and flourish. 

Support is out there

The biggest supportive aspects for me have been the senior role models – both male and female – who gave me realistic, practical advice and most importantly opportunities. My PhD supervisors have offered me flexibility and trusted me to organise my time. I have a network of friends at a similar stage who have provided moral support as well as practical knowledge about interviews and application forms, small pockets of funding, and navigating this tough phase of our career. I have been awarded several local grants available to academics with caring responsibilities or returning from carers leave. 

The recently restructured NIHR Advanced Clinical and Practitioner Academic Fellowship and Advanced Fellowship are specifically designed to provide support for those returning from career breaks and help researchers establish themselves as independent researchers in more senior positions.

NIHR has already made some strides in improving gender equality and addressing barriers to career progression for female academics. A number of interventions have successfully promoted gender equality in the research workforce, including the requirement for organisations to nominate at least one female applicant when nominating more than one applicant to the NIHR Research Professorship scheme.  Women now make up more than half of NIHR Research Professors and two-thirds of NIHR fellowships

Breaking the bias

There’s always more that can be done and below are several ways we can work together to help female early career researchers like me.  

Recognise the challenges that having a young family can pose and how it’s possible that we are not as productive as we would like to be during this period through no fault of our own. 

Look to establish targeted financial support towards childcare provision for conferences, courses, to make them more accessible to women. 

Introduce forward planning for research teams with medium to longer-term targets and goals. This helps those juggling different responsibilities organise family plans to ensure these are achieved. Shorter/emergency notices for tasks (whether it be applications/grants or smaller tasks like draft deadlines) are stressful for everyone, but particularly penalise women with caring responsibilities. 

Reduce rigidity around academic progression when transitioning into senior roles. Women who have been working flexibly or less-than-full-time for a decade may then not apply for senior academic roles because they feel unable to or because they feel underqualified. We need much more conversation around breaking down these barriers, and we should be assessed for the actual time we have had, rather than the total number of years in academia. Something I know is now taken into consideration at NIHR Selection Committees. 

By championing and supporting female early-career researchers we are helping to support the next generation of researcher leaders.  

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