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Medical funders aim to help women into leadership roles

Four UK funders of medical research have launched a pilot scheme that aims to help overcome the persistent gender disparity at senior academic levels.

The Sustain programme is a joint venture between the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Society, the Royal College of Physicians and the Medical Research Council. The one-year scheme will offer workshops and training sessions for up-and-coming women in the field, along with one-to-one mentoring from senior AMS fellows.

Just 17 per cent of UK clinical professors are women, according to a 2013 survey from the Medical Schools Council, and this is despite the fact that women have now outnumbered men at medical school for more than 20 years.

Susan Wray, a professor of physiology at the University of Liverpool, will be one of the mentors and is on the reference group overseeing the programme. She believes that self-doubt and a lack of confidence among women form part of the problem. Other reasons for the slow progress include a lack of accommodation for family commitments and the unconscious bias of male-dominated interview panels in academia, she adds.

“Women are often more reticent than men about putting themselves forward, and can be slower to pick themselves up when grant applications get turned down,” she says. This places them at a disadvantage in a highly competitive grant-chasing academic system.

Sustain’s formal programme aims to help participants build up their confidence, but the opportunity for informal networking may be just as important, Wray adds. Just meeting other women who have advanced but not along a “straight-arrow career progression” will benefit those with family commitments, she says.

The programme is initially open to 270 holders of specified fellowships and grants. A total of 20 applicants will be randomly selected to participate. This is in part because the reference group wanted to send the right message to unsuccessful applicants. “Nobody will be judged by some committee of the great and the good to have been inadequate; it’ll just be the luck of the draw,” says Wray. “We hope to run the scheme again and want people to reapply.”

In fact, the organisers hope to extend the scheme next year and are working on how to evaluate its effectiveness so that other funders want to come on board.

“I wish that something like this had been around when I was younger,” Wray concludes, “because I suffered from that lack of confidence we’re trying to overcome.”

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight