Diversity and Inclusion

How to Empower and Retain Women in Life Sciences Careers

March 7, 2023
March 8, 2024
Deanna deBara
Lattice Team

As women make strides in leadership and representation in the workforce many find themselves facing a “broken rung.” While male colleagues move into management from entry-level roles, women are less likely to be promoted at this early stage, making them less likely to reach senior leadership positions later on. This “broken rung” is an issue in virtually every industry, but it presents an even greater challenge for women working in the life sciences field, where the gender gap is particularly pronounced for both professional growth and compensation.

Companies are missing out on the unique and progressive ideas that come from women who are valued, appreciated, and fairly compensated.

4 Ways to Empower and Retain Women in Life Sciences

1. Build equitable pay strategies.

You can’t empower women if you’re not paying them what they’re worth — so make sure your compensation strategy is an equitable one.“Building equitable pay strategies sets the tone for the organization,” said Regan Reynolds, founder and Managing Director of Kith & Kin Consulting. The fairness of your pay strategy will have an overall impact on how women are treated within your organization. Here’s what HR can do:

  • Adjust womens’ salaries to be on par with their male counterparts who’ve negotiated for more salary increases during their tenure.
  • Adopt a performance-based compensation structure so people are rewarded for their contributions.

“In some cases, it goes beyond equal pay, as some women are making great contributions above and beyond their colleagues,” said leadership consultant, trainer, and STEM advocateTakeyah Young. “They should be paid for their work and the value they bring, especially if they are assuming leadership beyond what their same-level counterparts are doing.”

2. Create truly flexible work environments.

Flexible work environments provide an opportunity for employees to work and thrive in a setting and time that works best for them,” said Young. This helps women — especially those who are parents or caregivers — because they are often expected by their families and peers to do more unpaid labor at home, despite this being an outdated and inequitable gender role.Here’s what HR can do:

Providing more flexibility can help improve individual performance, and ultimately create a more high-performance culture. “When a woman works unconstrained, she has more freedom in her thinking and ability to execute,” Young said.

3. Eliminate bias in performance reviews.

Performance reviews play a major role in employee promotions. Unfortunately, they’re often very subjective, meaning gender-bias from managers make it harder for women to advance.A 2020 study from Stanford University examined how gender bias impacts how managers evaluate their employees. This study showed significant discrepancies in manager’s observations and perceptions of employee behavior based on gender. For example, a man who’s assertive and doesn’t shy away from confrontation is often considered a “go-getter,” but a woman who displays that same behavior is often viewed as mean or hard to work with.Here’s what HR can do:

4. Prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives.

“If a woman is forced to work in a psychologically unsafe environment, she cannot [perform at full capacity],” said Young. “She then has to spend her mental and intellectual capacity navigating these layers of bias [instead of] focusing on channeling her genius.”Investing in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives can help remove some of those barriers, and create an environment where women and other underrepresented groups can excel.“Prioritizing DEIB helps remove the responsibility from the women,” Young said. Here’s what HR can do:

  • Host DEIB training sessions. For example, if women at your company report feeling condescended or devalued by their peers, you can encourage your company’s ERGs to hold a training on microaggressions and effective communication. (Just make sure your ERG leaders are compensated for their time and effort.)
  • Launch a mentorship program. If your company lacks women in leadership, HR can boost internal mobility and employee development through mentorship where top-performing female employees receive mentoring and career guidance from senior leaders.

Reynolds said a company’s commitment to DEIB benefits employees and the organizations they power. “More understanding of all individuals; a larger, more diverse talent pool; an engaged team of employees; higher performance and productivity; and more holistic decision-making,” she said.

Challenges Facing Women in Life Sciences

According to McKinsey & Company’s 2022 Women in the Workplace report, for every 100 men who are promoted from an entry-level position into management, only 87 women are promoted, a number that drops to 82 for women of color. “Women in life sciences face many challenges, including fewer opportunities for growth and lower compensation,” noted Reynolds. “These women also face more stress than their male counterparts, workplace harassment, and [an] imbalance of work-life activities.” Key challenges include:

  • Workplace discrimination: Women in life sciences have to push back against outdated societal beliefs, including questions of “whether an occupation is ‘appropriate’ for a woman,” said Reynolds. “For example, [a cultural belief like] ‘men may be more competent and able to complete the requirements of engineering roles,’” can have an impact.
  • Lower compensation: “Women often have less confidence in their science and math abilities…and women who are less confident in their technical abilities apply for less competitive roles and often choose not to negotiate for a higher salary,” Reynolds said.
  • Lack of support: Because women are underrepresented in life sciences, they routinely don’t have the support they need to effectively overcome them. “When women are faced with these challenges, they often must adapt to the workplace and its norms versus being supported by a work environment that ensures the needs of all are met,” Reynolds said.

Women in life sciences face immense pressures: solving many of our world’s most pressing issues, navigating a historically discriminatory workplace, and still consistently performing and excelling in their roles. People teams can empower and support women and help them avoid the “broken rung” so they can take the next step in their careers — the step into leadership.

Why Representation Matters for Women in Science

“When women see women represented in leadership, their vision of what is possible can be expanded,” Young said.“When there are women in leadership roles, they can provide encouragement to other young women,” Reynolds said. “They inspire them to seek leadership roles, remind them to be confident in their abilities, and can help them understand the barriers facing women in business and how to succeed.”Promoting women into management positions shows your company is invested in empowering and supporting women, which can help you attract and retain top talent — both women and their allies. It can also yield positive business outcomes, including improved performance and more diverse and innovative ideas.“Evidence has shown that a diverse environment improves company and team performance,” Young said. “From a business perspective, that should be appealing to companies. From a human-potential perspective, companies are missing out on the unique and progressive ideas that come from women who are valued, appreciated, and fairly compensated.”Want to learn more about empowering your employees and building a thriving organization in today’s world of work? Download Lattice’s2023 State of People Strategy Report.