Women of Influence: how we’re addressing the gender disparity in cancer research

Rising through the ranks remains a challenge for women in science. Whilst many outstanding women enter science, engineering and technology (SET) research disciplines, the percentage reaching senior positions is depressingly low. Fewer than 1 in 10 SET professors in the UK are women, and female academics are severely under-represented on decision-making scientific boards. Here at Cancer Research UK, we are not immune from these statistics: half of our PhD students and 36% of our 74 CRUK fellows are women, but nearly 80% of our group leaders and programme grant holders are men. Our Scientific Executive Board is exclusively male, although our funding committees are rather more representative: 27% of our 176 Funding Committee members are women, whereas in academia only 20% of group leaders are women

How can we address the gender imbalance? Although the causes and solutions are complex, one strategy is to provide more senior female role models for women in the early stages of their careers. In early 2014, CRUK introduced the Women of Influence Initiative, a campaign with the goal of raising £1 million in two years towards funding the research of CRUK’s cohort of female research fellows. Uniquely, Women of Influence is not just a fundraising drive: it also aims to bring together promising female early career researchers and top businesswomen, to build mentoring relationships. One year in, we are extremely pleased to report that the new venture has been a resounding success. Currently, 18 female fellows are paired up with leading women from the private and public sectors. Their experiences of the challenges facing women in sometimes hostile business environments are giving our scientists valuable insights into how to build a successful career.

Tamara Box, a partner at the globally renowned law firm Reed Smith is Chair of the Women of Influence Board, and has been struck by the parallels between her world and ours: “Medical research and business are not a natural fit but I’ve been surprised by how similar the issues we deal with are. These young women are becoming independent for the first time in their careers and suddenly running labs, having to work out budgets and motivate their teams — we can offer them the benefit of our experiences.”

Sarah Bohndiek, a biophysicist at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, certainly feels that her mentor, Cary Marsh, founder and CEO of Punchfront Innovations, is helping her to develop the management skills you need to be a successful lab head: “I’ve now got a team of ten, and thanks to advice from Cary, and the books she’s recommended, they are now working in sub-teams and reinforcing each other’s research projects. It has relieved some pressure on me and generates a nice community spirit in the lab.”

Cary’s also been giving Sarah tips about motivating lab members. In science, as Sarah says, your boss is often keener to pick holes in your data rather than to thank you for doing a good job: “You don’t often get reinforcement, so now I’m consciously trying to do that — looking out for positives and praising people”.

One of the first lessons Sarah learned from Cary is about the value of self-promotion, something that women are notoriously bad at. “I picked out an award (the Women in Science and Engineering Research Award) I thought I could enter her for,” says Cary, “and she won it! Now, when Sarah’s recruiting, and people see she’s an award-winning scientist, it’s going to attract talent.” Sarah agrees the award has been really helpful: “Since Cary helped me overcome this problem with self-promotion, I’ve entered and won other awards. I’m on a bit of a roll now! And the last position I recruited for received 65 applications — it took me a whole day to read the CVs.”

Ana Cvejic, a Cambridge-based Career Development Fellow involved in the scheme, is equally positive about the benefits of her discussions with her mentor, Gay Collins, the executive chairman of MHP Communications. Being able to pick up the phone and talk to an experienced businesswoman in confidence is both inspirational and a source of strength. “Science is so competitive and there is a lot of politics,” says Ana. “You have to fight for your position and to have your voice and research heard. Being able to talk to someone without worrying about the politics is helpful.”

As the Women of Influence Initiative goes into its second year, the last word lies most appropriately with Tamara Box: “It was less than ten years ago that Madeleine Albright made her famous comment, that there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. I like to think that today’s professionals have learned the lesson that women of Albright’s generation fought so hard to get across: women must help each other wherever and whenever they can.”


Dr Caroline Hill runs the Developmental Signalling lab at the Francis Crick Institute at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. She and her team study intercellular communication — a crucial process in embryonic development, but one which can go awry in cancer, driving the development and spread of tumours. Here, Dr Hill gives us an insight into some of the challenges she has faced in her career.

I wanted to be a scientist from childhood. My interest was initially sparked when I was about eleven, after reading a children’s biography of Marie Curie. I loved the idea of finding out things that no one else in the world knows and it being a passion. My interest in biology started when I worked in a hospital lab in my gap year before university, and grew when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. What inspired me then, and still inspires me today, is a desire to discover how complex living things develop from single cells and how these processes go wrong in disease.
I have faced a number of challenges in my career, some of which I think are universal, while others may be more specific to the fact that I am a woman in what is still very much a male-dominated profession, particularly at the more senior levels. Apart from difficulties convincing peer reviewers (often competitors) that the work should be published, a major challenge for all lab directors is people management. In this profession, you go from being a member of someone else’s lab to being head of a lab in a matter of months, with little or no training in how to manage a multinational team of people with very different outlooks and motivations. This is where mentoring by senior colleagues comes into its own, and it’s why I am so keen on the Women of Influence Initiative. People often seem to be especially hard on female bosses, expecting them to be much more nurturing and understanding than male bosses.
A challenge that I have met more recently as I have joined committees and boards, is how to get your voice heard when you are quite often the only woman in the room. This problem will only go away when more women are allowed to reach the senior levels — and mentoring young women at the beginning of their independent careers is crucial in achieving this.

This story was originally published in Pioneering Research: Cancer Research UK’s annual research publication for 2014/15. Find more at cruk.org/pioneeringresearch