“I’m one of the lucky ones - I followed my dreams and love my career. Not all women are able to do so.”
In order to generate the data needed to close the gender data gap, we need to go back to the start. And when it comes to healthcare, it starts with research.
For the benefit of innovative medicines and diagnostics to be felt by a diverse group, diverse perspectives must be considered in research – an idea which also applies when it comes to generating women’s health data. A study of 1.5 million medical papers suggested that there was a strong link between women’s authorship and the likelihood of a study including gender and sex analysis.1 We also know that female scientists are 35% more likely than male scientists to develop treatments that benefit women, yet only 13% of patent holders are women.
While the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles is increasing, they continue to be underrepresented in this field, with only 33% of scientists being women.2
Dr. Anna Bauer-Mehren, Head Data Science, Roche Innovation Center Munich, Pharma Research and Early Development (pRED) was fascinated by mathematics from an early age. “People considered it strange that I loved numbers - that was always considered more of a male thing,” she said. This perception continued into Anna’s career: only 5% of her peers were women when she first entered bioinformatics. Despite this, Anna continued to pursue her passion. “I’m one of the lucky ones - I followed my dreams and love my career,” Anna said. “Not all women are able to do so.”
There is a widespread belief that men are mathematically superior and therefore better suited to scientific fields than women.3
Young girls’ interest in STEM subjects tends to diminish at an early age.4 This is likely due to societal and environmental factors, including peer pressure, lack of role models, and a general misconception about STEM careers.5
There is a perception that scientific working environments are less welcoming to women, due to awareness of these biases, as well as work-life balance practices.
The underrepresentation of women in science is self-perpetuating. “The more young girls that are put off science and maths, the fewer role models there are for the next generation - it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Anna explains.
Without women driving clinical research, the female perspective, specific experience, and sex-specific nuances aren’t considered. This means there is less gendered data analysis, and less focus on conditions that impact women, meaning insufficient data is generated. “In science, data is everything. Generating data, analysing data, developing insights from data. It’s hugely important,” Anna explained. “If we generate data with a biased view, every algorithm we use to analyse it will also learn these biases and will draw the wrong conclusion. This can have detrimental impacts.”
Ultimately, when women are underrepresented as scientists, there is a domino effect resulting in women’s health being generally less well-understood. Addressing deep-rooted biases and challenging the status quo to increase women’s share of voice in medical research is vital to improving health outcomes for women.
Anna believes the key to increasing the number of women in research lies in reaching girls at a young age. “We need to be supporting and encouraging girls who show a curiosity in maths and science very early on. These girls will go on to drive the research and analysis that will help close the gender data gap, and then act as role models for the next generation, kick-starting a positive cycle.”
Roche is committed to incorporating women’s experiences more strongly into the research and development process. “It was never a problem to be a woman at Roche. I had so many role models, and am proud to now be another young woman’s mentor. We have a number of initiatives, such as the pRED Women's Network (PWN) - a group of women scientists from our Pharma Research and Early Development team, dedicated to looking into the female perspective on data, and achieving an equitable workplace. We even have programmes examining systemic differences in how women and men might progress differently at work. ” The PWN is a community of more than 200 Roche employees, dedicated to increasing the number of women leaders in research and development, unleashing the potential of women to achieve business objectives, and empowering women to embrace their full potential.
To ensure that women’s health is fairly represented in science, and to promote the development of treatments benefitting women, it is key that we include more women scientists in healthcare research. “We are already seeing that the inclusion of women in research and data analysis means that women’s needs are better defined and prioritised,” Anna said. “We’re going in the right direction in terms of generating better data, but there is still a lot of hard work to be done. My message to women interested in a career in science and research? Follow your passion – do what you love to do. It’s so important on an individual and societal basis.”
Nielsen, M.W., Andersen, J.P., Schiebinger, L. et al. One and a half million medical papers reveal a link between author gender and attention to gender and sex analysis. Nat Hum Behav. 2017;1, 791–796.
S. Schneegans, T. Straza and J. Lewis (eds). UNESCO. UNESCO Science Report: the Race Against Time for Smarter Development. 2021. UNESCO Publishing: Paris.
Hill, C et al. AAUW Report: Why So Few? Women in Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. 2010. AAUW.
Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth After 35 Years: Uncovering Antecedents for the Development of Math-Science Expertise. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2006;1(4), 316–345.