Why are there still so few women in science?

Athene Donald

Why aren’t there more women in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), and why do their numbers decline as they progress further up the academic career ladder? The Science and Technology Select Committee has been considering this problem, along with a few supplementary follow-on questions. Written and oral evidence has been collected and presumably a report will be forthcoming sometime soon.

The depressing thing is that, worthy though this enquiry is, the same question has been asked time and time again over at least the last couple of decades. Answers seem in short supply. Or more correctly, answers that have had significant lasting impact seem to be in short supply. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate the steady attrition rate of women as one moves up the academic ladder. The reasons are complex and multifaceted, which is precisely why the challenge is so great.

It would be naïve to think that the only issue is the problem of taking time out for maternity leave and finding affordable childcare, although solving the prevalent practical problem of local good nurseries could do no harm. Academic life, once one has a permanent position, is relatively flexible but unfortunately the average age of obtaining such a tenured position has systematically increased (for men and women). This means that the job insecurity and short term contracts endured by many early career researchers are ever more likely to coincide with the time when they may want to start a family.

Many women feel this is too high and uncertain a price to pay and so get out of the competitive world of academia. Additionally, if an academic woman has a fellow academic as a partner, finding jobs (let alone permanent positions) for both in the same city can be a further major obstacle.

Those are the very obvious and practical problems. But there are many more subtle and cultural issues I personally believe are just as important.

For example, when drawing up a shortlist for a position, does a department simply look for people who look like them, their own unconscious biases thereby restricting the diversity of those whom they interview and subsequently appoint? A recent study has reinforced earlier findings that CVs labelled with a woman’s name fare less well than those identified as male, even when they are identical.  Worse, since many institutions will have photographs on the walls of their successful ‘old boys’, who will typically be male, then women entering the building may feel a sinking feeling of being ‘different’ and actually underperform due to the well-researched problem of ‘stereotype threat’. The working environment may continue to reinforce male, typically competitive if not actually laddish, culture.  Many women will simply not want to battle on against job insecurity in a climate like that, however gifted they may be.

Of course there are moves to counter such negatives. The Athena Swan awards (at bronze, silver and gold levels) recognize universities and STEM departments that are taking stock of their position around gender and pro-actively working to improve the working environment.  More and more departments are getting involved in this scheme and it is to be hoped that there will be tangible and quantitative measures of the scheme’s success in the near future: there are many examples of good practice which should in time feed through to improved numbers.

Nevertheless, the cultural expectation that a scientist is male, reinforced daily through print and visual media, is deeply ingrained. Our schools too often perpetuate that myth, encouraging girls to go on work experience in a hairdressers or retail outlets, and sending the boys to garages or factories to broaden their minds. Cultural conditioning seems to start almost from birth in the toys we buy for our children and the subliminal messages we collectively give.

This cultural stereotyping may well be the hardest obstacles of all to overcome.

 

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