Women in Science: Plug the leaky career pipes by challenging social norms

2199386 300x225 Women in Science: Plug the leaky career pipes by challenging social normsRecession, debts, budget cuts, tax – it’s all about saving money these days, and identifying the sectors of society with highest and lowest return per invested penny. One UK sector that is renowned for its ability to deliver excellence on very limited budget is science and technology: over 10% of global scientific output is produced in the UK, despite the fact that our country only holds 1% of the global population, and spend less on science per capita than most other countries.

So, investing in science means big bangs for small bucks. But it takes no rocket scientist to realise that science could be even better value for money. Every year billions of pounds are lost when highly trained women scientists leave their careers in science, engineering and technology (SET). Plug this leaky pipe, and the potential savings are immense: for a country like Scotland, a doubling of women’s high-level skill contribution to the economy is worth as much as £170 million per annum. For the UK as a whole, the loss to the economy by qualified women scientists, technologists and engineers working below their level of qualification, or being unemployed or inactive has been recently estimated to reach £2 billion (that’s roughly 0.2% GDP). The bottom line is we (as a nation) excel in investing to train women to be world-class scientists, but we don’t invest enough in plugging that leaky pipe that so often forces women out of science careers later in life.

One thing is clear: the under-representation of women in science is not due to girls’ lack of interest in science at GCSE and A level, or even at university. The challenge is to get women to stay in science after PhD or their first postdoctoral positions, which happens to coincide with the time when many women (and men) want to settle down, and maybe start a family.

To date, the focus has been on trying to identify the factors driving women to leave science, and to use this information to design policies and strategies to minimise it. Have these strategies worked? Let’s take the Royal Society for example: even though the first woman fellow was elected nearly 70 years ago, women still currently only make up about 5% of the fellows. And in 2012, only two of the 44 newly appointed fellows were female. Although the number of female professors in the country is slowly increasing, more than 4 in 5 professors are men. And more broadly, men in the UK are six times more likely than women to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

Why is the path to parity so slow? So far, most approaches to help retain women in science have focused on women, which may seem a logical step. Yet most studies highlight a simple fact: preventing the loss of women in science cannot be achieved without major cultural changes, namely, redefining women’s and men’s perceptions of their role in their work environment and in society in general. We need a society where men are as likely – and feel as comfortable – as women to choose to earn less, to work part-time, or to take a career break to focus on the education and well-being of their children. But little has been done to promote these societal changes, at least in the UK.

There has been, and still is in many situations, an unspoken assumption that men are the breadwinners, should earn more, and should climb the workforce ladder more quickly and effectively than their female counterparts. Society enforces these expectations: parental responsibility is usually attributed to mothers rather than fathers by society and government. The competitive science environment also partly reflects these expectations: part-time jobs in science are mainly filled by women (and many scientists maintain that you cannot be a part-time scientist), and more often are reserved for the lower ranked positions; parental career breaks for male scientists are extremely rare. As long as such perceptions shape our social norms, the path to parity will be painfully long.

Promoting changes that empower men to take on bigger roles at home may be as important as encouraging these highly skilled female workers not to leave the SET sector. The potential impact is a sight to behold: imagine a world where any scientist, male or female, is equally likely to take a long parental break or ask to work part-time. Foremost, it would help reduce gender-biased salary discrepancies, generate a gender-balance in mentors and role models for the next generation, and increase the likelihood of on-site creches in scientific institutions. This problem is not peculiar to science: it affects any competitive, demanding career. Changing the perception of what society expects from us – socially and professionally – will have wide-reaching, positive effects on the ‘social disease’ of a mismatched work-life balance.

All this talk – but how can we change social norms? Changing perceptions starts by inspiring new generations of young boys and girls – helping them shape their views on who or what a scientist really is. We are taking a small step towards achieving this at this year’s Soapbox Science event, on London’s Southbank on 16 July 16 (12-3pm). Now in its third year, Soapbox Science gives the public the chance to hear first-hand from UK’s top female scientists. These real women in science will amaze the public from their soapboxes with news of their latest scientific discoveries, they will answer the questions you’ve been burning to ask. The power to change social norms lies with the public and the next generation of young scientists. Soapbox Science brings real science and real scientists to the streets to put the first bits of tape over that leaky pipe.

Dr Nathalie Pettorelli and Dr Seirian Sumner are Research Fellows at the Institute of Zoology, and organizers of the Soapbox Science. The event is organised in association with the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme and The Zoological Society of London, with the support of the Royal Society.

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  • Luke Gledhill

    I agree with the notion of having a gender balance in the science based workforce (indeed any workforce), but I wonder why (since you mentioned the first women fellow was elected 70 years ago, and as a result, we can reason there are little to no boundaries preventing women from reaching these higher positions) there are so few women working in scientific fields today? Personally, I do not believe that the job ladder discriminates against women. It is plain to see that women can reach these higher positions if, and only if, they are willing to sacrifice other parts of their lives in order to do so. There is nothing holding women back from these positions, just individual choices. It is their choice to start a family/work at home/support their husbands, not societies intent or will.

    Furthermore, since 4/5 professors are men, and men are 6 times more likely to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, perhaps the reason there are fewer women in these career fields is due to a higher proportion of men having an interest in these topics compared to the number of women interested. Considering this point, introducing 50/50 male/female quotas will not solve the problem, you cannot make people interested in a subject just so the gender balance can be improved. This would also bring us back to square one. One of the key facts in the article stressed the economic losses of having less qualified women in work, just think of the economic loss caused by a majority of qualified men fired/not hired in order to balance out a quota that probably will never be filled. Finally, yes, whilst some men will jump at part-time jobs/paternity leave, this will not change the overall trend that sees men staying in work and supporting their families.

  • David Carslake

    It’s refreshing to read an article on this subject which really considers the causes and consequences of the scarcity of women in the upper echelons of science. I agree that much of the problem lies in the social norms which result in women typically giving greater weight than men do, to “life” in the work-life balance, particularly at that critical PhD-first postdoc stage. However, these norms only have such an influence on the scientific gender balance because scientific careers demand such personal sacrifices. What if we made it easier to pursue a career in science without being an obsessive workaholic? Perhaps this would give us a scientific community that was more balanced in every respect.

  • CJ

    I have been an engineer working in private industry for over 15 years. I also happen to be a woman. Early in my carreer I did not encounter barriers that I considered significant. As I progressed I have encountered an expoentially increasing amount of crap (discrediting, claiming credit for my work, undermining, expectations that I will do the grunt work for new young male engineers, lack of resources, denial of training and a very active rumour mill aligned against me to name a few examples). I was very reluctant to attribute these behaviors to my being female because that is a very didficult problem to solve. When I compared notes with other female engineer the pattern was clear. I think men also face this problem to some degree, but women are more vulnerable because of stereotypes. The perpetrators of this behavior pick the easiest targets. I’ve chosen to stay in the profession because the work is so interesting but when it gets really bad I sometimes wonder why I have to put up with this rottenness to practice engineering.

    BTW my husband is a stay at home dad now working part time. His contribution to oum

    household is just as importnt as mine. We are a tea

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