Survey Highlights “Shocking” Gender Bias Among PI Pay in UK
Survey Highlights “Shocking” Gender Bias Among PI Pay in UK

Survey Highlights “Shocking” Gender Bias Among PI Pay in UK

Young science professors, both men and women, say their institutions don’t support them with enough mentoring and resources yet ask them to teach sometimes up to 40 hours a week.

Mar 15, 2019
David Adam

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Organizers of a survey of early-career scientists in the UK say they are shocked by the picture it paints of gender bias in British science. Women principal investigators (PIs) who have started their own lab in recent years are paid thousands of pounds a year less than men at the same stage of their career, the results show.   

“There’s simply no excuse for that difference in starting salaries at this level. We’re all coming in on the same types of fellowships and the same types of lectureships,” says Sophie Acton, a molecular biologist at University College London who helped to run the survey. “When you take a snapshot of people at the same level and find such a difference it’s shocking.”

Acton and her colleagues collected responses from 365 PIs who started labs at UK universities between 2012 and 2018. Most worked in the life sciences and were in their mid-30s. About half the women said they started on a salary of less than £40k ($53,000 USD) a year, compared with just a third of the men. At the top end of the earnings scale, twice as many men as women said they were given a starting salary above £50k ($66,000 USD) a year.

UK universities pay salaries according to a common scale that is supposed to give people on the same grades similar money. But Acton says the results show women are still losing out when they are appointed. “It’s down to how people negotiate their position. It needs to be standardized. We all thought it was.”

More than 10 percent of research fellows said they taught for more than 40 hours a week.

The survey—which was anonymous and self-reported—also highlighted patchy support from institutions. Almost a quarter of the new PIs said they had no mentorship. A third were not satisfied with the set-up, with a lack of space and facilities the biggest gripe.

Suzanne Candy, director of Biomedical Grants and Policy at the Academy of Medical Sciences in London, says the survey is right to draw attention to mentoring, which she says is especially important as early-career scientists transition to running their own labs. “We have thought quite long and hard about how we support people,” she says. The academy’s mentoring scheme, now in its 16th year, supports more than 800 scientists, with the participants encouraged to identify areas where they need assistance from senior colleagues. She says modern science demands new skills. “We think new PIs will benefit from not just mentorship, but training in assertiveness, group dynamics, communication skills, and networking.”

Acton says she was amazed to see from the survey how many PIs employed by external funders as full-time researchers were still expected to teach, despite them not being contracted to do so. Nearly 40 percent of research fellows spent at least 10 hours a week with undergraduates. More than 10 percent said they taught for more than 40 hours a week—the equivalent of a full-time job. Writing up their results in a preprint posted to bioRxiv March 10, the survey organisers note that “funders might need to consider specifying a limit on the number of hours to protect their investment in the research programme.”  

Miguel Jorge, a lecturer in chemical and process engineering at the University of Strathclyde in the UK, is a long-standing advocate for early-career scientists. He helped to produce the 2016 Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers, which called on European policy makers to recognize their needs. He  tells The Scientist, “Lots of the difficulties have to do with funding and in my opinion it’s getting worse.”  The increasing emphasis placed on large-scale collaborative projects can make it especially hard for new PIs without a network of contacts, Jorge adds. “For someone who doesn’t have that kind of support it’s really tough.” That would often include scientists who arrive at a university as an externally funded research fellow, says said. The survey results show that such fellows are less likely to be members of a trade union, for example, while almost a fifth said they had no annual review of their progress.