Women in academic science have come a long way, gaining the right to study and access to teaching and research positions. Yet, the gate towards more senior roles often remains shut. Combining a holistic analysis of academic structures and values with individual experiences and cases, the authors reflect on issues and solutions. Many factors are reducible to a persistent bias, which translates into sexual harassment, salary inequity and isolation. Moreover, despite intermittent policy interventions, institutional inertia marginalizes women and enhances men’s prospects for advancement. Beyond these active barriers, linear career paths fail to address the contradiction between biological and tenure clocks. Exclusionary practices, push-outs into lower-level occupations, the creation of new interdisciplinary fields and women’s removal when they become prestigious are academia’s ‘vanishing cream’. A systemic renovation of universities is required that clearly addresses bias and inherently discriminatory institutional structures, rather than attempting to ‘fix the women’.