L’Oréal USA & Heising-Simons Foundation Study Finds Mentorship and Independent Funding Improves Staying Power for Women in STEM

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FWIS survey press release hero image 2019

To mark the 15th anniversary of its For Women in Science (FWIS) program, L’Oréal USA partnered with the Heising-Simons Foundation to commission a study of its alumni network—scientists who have received fellowship grants since the program’s 2003 launch—for their perspectives on what is needed for women to succeed in STEM. The resulting study, “Staying Power: Women in Science on What it Takes to Succeed,” was developed and conducted by the independent research firm RTI International and released today. It offers unique insight into the factors that support productive, resilient careers for women in STEM, as well as the challenges that persist. 


The study is part of L’Oréal USA’s efforts to advance the leadership of women in STEM: a cause the beauty leader has been committed to since the 2003 launch of the U.S. FWIS program, which annually awards five exceptional female postdoctoral scientists with grants of $60,000 each. FWIS grants are administered during a critical time in female scientists' careers. Although the number of women in science is increasing, there remains a "leaky pipeline," with significant career drop-off happening during the years between postdoc and tenure track.

Notably, 100% of the study’s respondents work in paid science-related positions today, making them a unique group from which to learn and gain insights.

“L’Oréal USA is proud to support women in STEM during a pivotal time in their careers,” said Frédéric Rozé, Executive Vice President, L’Oréal Americas. “To see through these study findings that the For Women in Science program may be contributing to the staying power of female scientists throughout their careers is motivating for us as a company to continue this work. We firmly believe that the world needs science, and science needs women, because women in science have the power to change the world.”

The study results identify 5 factors that matter most for women staying in STEM:

Obtaining independent grant funding (according to 100% of respondents)
Family-friendly policies and supports (98%)
Formal or structural mentoring programs (95%)
Career development trainings (95%)
Structured networking programs and opportunities (91%)

The study offers additional insights into the state of women in science today, including:

90% of respondents said that career opportunities have improved for women in science
88% of respondents agree that in the past decade, the gender composition in science has improved for women
66% of respondents agree that, in the past decade, women’s representation in leadership positions in scientific fields has improved

The study also shows that the majority of respondents are motivated by a strong desire to make a positive impact through their work; findings include:

92% of respondents cited the potential for major discoveries and innovation as a motivator for continuing their work in science.
92% are involved in training and mentoring the next generation of scientists in their fields
87% cited the potential for solving major societal problems and improving conditions as a motivator for continuing to work in science.

However, improvements are still needed. The majority (91%) of respondents agree that gender discrimination remains a career obstacle for women in science. Additional challenges, particularly at the postdoctoral stage, include:

Self-doubt and lack of confidence: 100% of respondents indicate that these issues, which contribute to what is known as “Imposter Syndrome,” serve as obstacles to women’s career trajectories in the postdoctoral stage.
Gender bias: 89% of respondents said that gender bias serves as an obstacle to women’s career trajectories in the postdoctoral stage
Sexual harassment: 73% of respondents said that sexual harassment serves as an obstacle to women’s career trajectories in the postdoctoral stage
Lack of equal opportunities: Only 45% of respondents agreed that women in their scientific fields are given equal opportunities to men to pursue their careers

Findings from the study reinforce prior research on the need for intervention to better support women during their postdoctoral training. This study points to several specific areas for intervention, including:

1) The need for, and value of, independent funding for women scientists at the postdoctoral stage; this was the factor to which fellows most often attributed their success. 
2) The need for structured family supports and family-friendly policies specifically targeted to postdoctoral trainees. Fellows identified family constraints or responsibilities as one of the top barriers to women’s career trajectories during the postdoctoral training and felt that family-friendly policies and supports would be highly effective in promoting women’s career advancement in the postdoctoral stage.
3) The need for improvements in mentoring and networking opportunities available for women in science. Many fellows felt that they would have benefited tremendously from having had a female mentor (or having more women in leadership positions in their professional networks). 
4) Strategies are needed to address the confidence gap among women in science. 

“By focusing on retention of women in science, we have the opportunity to shift the tide in our favor and really achieve equality,” said Shruti Naik, Assistant Professor, New York University, and 2016 FWIS Fellow.

Read “Staying Power: Women in Science on What it Takes to Succeed,” in full here.