Written by Kyla Germain

On March 9th, thousands of Toronto women and men rallied down Yonge Street for the International Women’s Day March. The theme, ‘We Are Fearless,’ artfully captured the current feminist tone which is unafraid to protest the inequalities still faced by women around the globe. Amid the colourful signs and vigorous chanting, we paused to ask: what is the fate of women in Canadian science today?

Early on in the proverbial pipeline, things appear positive. Statistics Canada’s 2016 workforce survey found that for the first time, almost 60% of university science graduates were women, indicating that women are interested in pursuing scientific careers. How is it, then, that whether in an academic or industry setting, women account for only 22% of the scientific workforce in Canada? …

The leaks appear in the pipeline almost immediately after university, with many women leaving science at the post-graduate level. Graduates pursuing an academic career face post-doctoral fellowships that offer short-term contracts and poor job security at an age where women are disproportionately weighted with childbearing and childcare responsibilities. Women who do rise to the challenge and have children while continuing an academic career consistently earn less, publish fewer papers, and are less successful in receiving research grants than their male colleagues with children.1,2 That’s not an inviting prospect, and may help explain why less than 30% of science professors at Canadian universities are women.3

On the contrary, industry offers both structure and stability. A career in biomedical, pharmaceutical, or biotech industry boasts opportunities to leverage a scientific background with management and leadership skills while maintaining a healthier work-life balance. So, how do women fare in the industrial sector?

If we were to walk into a biotech start-up or an industry research lab right now, seemingly equal numbers of men and women’s faces would peer back at us. U of T Biochemistry graduate Kelsey Law believes that gender didn’t play a role in landing her current position at Toronto’s Bloom Burton & Co. “They’re looking for competent, driven individuals,” she explains, “as long as you fit that profile, [gender] shouldn’t matter.”She’s not wrong — women are entering the industry at the same rates as men. Yet, if we were to wander up to the executive office, we would see a marked difference in the numbers of men and women. A labour market report by BioTalent Canada indicates that women make up less than 20% of senior and executive positions in Canada’s bioindustry, and women of colour are few and far between. Why are there so few women in senior and executive positions? In a piece for Sanofi, HR vice-president Julie Zhou suggests three root causes underlying the disparity.

  1. Women do not get enough social and corporate support to maintain work-life balance.

The idea that women must choose between a family and a high-power career is a persisting notion. In BioTalent’s report, many employers indicated reluctance to promote women with young children or those likely to have children in the future. Men were perceived as more likely to both travel for work and work late nights or weekends, which increased their chances of receiving promotions. On the flip side, some women actively leave senior roles for positions that allow them to spend more time with their children. Institutions need to implement workplace practices such as paid parental leave and on-site daycare, so that women do not have to compromise their families to further their careers. Small companies and start-ups show promise in this regard. “Companies are becoming more open-minded,” Law notes. Pointing to two co-workers with young children, she remarks, “they’ll work from home once or twice a week, [Bloom Burton] is pretty flexible about that. They understand we have a life.”

  1. There is a lack of mentorship and social networks to support and advance women.

A recurring theme is the need for mentorship and social networks for women in industry. A third of BioTalent’s respondents had not been mentored by someone in the industry, and few respondents had exclusively female mentors. “Those with access to female mentors reported fewer challenges looking for work, finding role models and dealing with the gender pay gap,” they report. Mentors provide invaluable insights into managing family and professional life, and can play a vital role in obtaining promotions. Wende Hutton, general partner at the VC firm Canaan, put it simply in an interview for C&E news: “having a senior executive who will vouch for one’s ability to stretch into a new role is critical.”

BioTalent also reports that women had limited access to social networks, leaving over 60% of respondents feeling isolated at work. Law recounts that she and other women with scientific backgrounds working in investment banking in Toronto will meet up once a month for beers, in attempts to create a local network of science women in banking. The key, though, is participation by men in the industry.  “If you’re hiring out of your network, it’s who you went to school with, who you did your PhD with, and guess what? That’s a predominantly male environment,” Hutton explains. To break this pattern, institutions need to foster co-ed programming and encourage men to not only take on more mentorship roles, but also expand their networks to include more women. Conceivebly, as the proportion of women completing science degrees increases, networks too will steadily grow to include more women.

  1. Women limit their own career aspirations due to self-inflicted and social illusions.

Perhaps the most important factor is that women limit their own career aspirations. BioTalent’s report revealed that Canada’s bioindustry harbors unconscious bias, with many employers perceiving men to have stronger leadership skills and women to have supporting skills. Studies have shown that women are repeatedly undermined in the workplace, more often let others take credit for their work, and are more likely to downplay their professional achievements to avoid intimidating others. From a young age, society ingrains in us the understanding that women should value modesty and collaboration over success. To move up in the workplace, women must overcome this barrier by self-promoting, speaking up to receive credit for their ideas, and proactively driving their own professional success. “The best way to advocate for oneself is to do the work but to also make others aware of your accomplishments. This can be done directly or indirectly, by sharing with other more senior people within one’s organization or through mentors,” Judith Absalon, Senior Medical Director at Pfizer instructs. Law emphasizes that you shouldn’t be afraid to apply for positions even if you don’t have all the qualifications listed. “Be confident,” she advises, “and know that you’ve spent so many years in school that you can do the job.”

It’s no secret that companies who enforce gender diversity perform better. Increased diversity allows teams to address problems more holistically, and removing barriers gives companies access to the best talent. History warns of the consequences when women are excluded from science. The first air bags created by a male-dominated industry were tested using only male dummies before they were deployed, leading to the death of women whose bodies were shorter and lighter in comparison. Tales like this often prompt outcries that we need more women in science, but the past decade has seen to this. More women than ever before are studying science and entering scientific careers, but they lack institutional support to climb the ladder to senior positions at the same rates as men. “We have to encourage more women to be pioneers,” Abbie Celniker of Third Rock states. “If you don’t see another woman at that management table or board table, but you really like the job or the science, you’ve got to be brave. You’ve got to take it. Somebody has to break the cycle.” So, here’s to all of the women who are putting their scientific minds forward to foster innovation and success – keep working, keep fighting, and keep shattering those glass ceilings, ladies.


  1. UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. (2014). Women in scientific careers.Retrieved from: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmsctech/701/70102.htm (Accessed 13 Mach 2019)
  2. Frederickson, M. (2018). Canadian professors still face a gender pay gap. MacleansRetrieved from: https://www.macleans.ca/education/canadian-professors-still-face-a-gender-pay-gap/(Accessed 13 March 2019)
  3. Canadian Association of University Teachers. (2008). CAUT Equity Review – Narrowing the Gender Gap: Women Academics in Canadian Universities. Retrieved from: https://www.caut.ca/docs/equity-review/narrowing-the-gender-gap-mdash-women-academics-in-canadian-universities-%28mar-2008%29.pdf(Accessed 14 March 2019)
  4. Law, K. (2019). Personal Interview.