Women in Science: Changing the game for women in science: it’s not a one-stop-shop

WIS 300x199 Women in Science: Changing the game for women in science: it’s not a one stop shop

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Seirian Sumner is a senior lecturer in behavioural biology at Bristol University, and Nathalie Pettorelli is a research fellow at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London. Seirian and Nathalie co-founded a science outreach venture Soapbox Science in 2011, which aims to promote the visibility of women in science. They use this venture as a platform for raising awareness about the issues facing women in science with a view to addressing gender inequality in science careers. Soapbox Science 2013 took place on the Southbank, London earlier this month. The Soapbox Science event is sponsored by the L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science programme.

Scientists are generally viewed as private creatures who shy away from contact with the public. What, therefore, could be more remarkable than stumbling across a bunch of real live scientists standing on soapboxes on the streets of London, talking about their science to anyone who will stop and listen? This happened on the Southbank, London earlier this month when over 1000 people stopped in their tracks to listen to some of the top UK scientists. Lunch-on-the-run city workers, kids wild with sunshine, tourists buried in cameras and sun cream, joggers with sweat in their eyes. Our scientists didn’t care who they spoke to – the ethos of Soapbox Science is that science is for everyone.

Soapbox Science is not just a quirky, grass roots science outreach event – there is a more serious message underlying it, personified by our speakers, who are all women. The message is simple: the gender bias in science today is lamentable and needs to be addressed now.

The statistics are indeed horrifying: only 13 per cent of all Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) jobs in the UK (including health occupations) are occupied by women (WISE 2012) despite rather equal gender representations at ‘A’ level and undergraduate level for many STEM disciplines.

Across the whole of academia, women occupy a small 17.5 per cent of all grade A academics positions in the UK (grade A corresponding to the single highest grade/post at which research is normally conducted; in most countries, grade A corresponds to Full Professors; She 2012), which is below the average proportion for the EU. Worse still is UK’s STEM departments, where only 9.2 per cent of professors are women.

Yet women have a lot to offer science and the economy and much potential is currently being wasted on losing trained women scientists because of the paucity of mentorship, opportunities and support for flexible working. Aside from these costs, it is remarkable in the progressive 21st century that women should have to accept that they are battling against all odds if they want a career in science. Scientists, government and society have a collective responsibility to address the leaky pipe of gender bias and retain more of the UK’s women in science throughout the career structure. At Soapbox Science, we believe a combination of bottom-up (to change social norms in society and institutions) and top-down (through government legislation), action is required to achieve this (Sumner & Pettorelli 2012).

Top-down action: The role of the government

It is undeniable that the power for change lies with the men. Women (of any career) are likely to find it much easier to excel in a demanding career, like science, if their partner takes an equal role in childcare/parental leave. However, it is currently not perceived socially acceptable by employers, colleagues, or even the local toddler groups, for men to be taking on part-time work, flexible work or substantial parental leave.

To increase the representation of women in STEM fields, we need to make career breaks and part-time work more acceptable to men. This has the added, practical advantage of giving women more help at home. Legislative changes often drive social change; so changing the traditional perception of the roles of men at work and at home is also about promoting legislation for equal parental leave and rights, with case-by-case flexibility.

Government initiatives can help solve the two-body problem that science couples face. It is near impossible for academic couples to find suitable positions in the same UK institution. Usually, the woman is the one who takes the career hit. Government could help by providing fellowships to allow scientists to move their research to the institution where their partner is based. These fellowships need to be reactive, and cover a long enough period (three to five years) for these scientists to be able to secure a permanent position in the region they want to be.

Research teams should be gender diverse. Government incentives for employers are a powerful way to tackle gender inequalities. The Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science rewards U.K. university departments for good gender equality employment practices. Making such official recognition compulsory for consideration by all funding bodies would be a powerful and achievable way toward achieving gender equality in science.

Bottom up action: The role of the academic society and beyond

Legislation can only go so far, and we don’t want to lose the flexibility that helps academia thrive. Indeed, the flexibility of academic life is in some ways what makes it such an attractive career choice for a parent who is juggling an active family life alongside a challenging work life. Things that can make a difference need to be implemented within the academic community.

Research institutions and universities have the power to do this. They could reward good role models for work-life balance among both male and female employees; they should provide all employees with a committed mentor who champions both their science and their work-life balance. Mentors can help break the taboo among young scientists of talking about their concerns for the future: the earlier women get advice for how to juggle a family with a career in science, the more women we STEM will retain.

Part-time professional working arrangements are still uncommon in most leading economies (including the UK). This is especially so in academia, although there is little evidence that working fewer hours leads to lower productivity. Institutions/universities need to nurture a positive and encouraging attitude toward male employees, in particular, who might like to work part-time to facilitate a caring role. When it is equally likely that a male or female requests part-time working/parental leave, the playing field will begin to level out for gender in science.

The make or break point in a scientist’s life lies around the time when most want to start having a family. In many other professions, career breaks are an appealing solution. But career breaks for scientists can have severe impacts on future job prospects: even full-time scientists struggle to keep up to date with the literature, new methods and ideas. Institutes and universities must take responsibility in reducing the pressures on early career scientists, by making it publicly acceptable for them to balance work demands and personal responsibilities, and to help them do so. Universities that do this will be able to attract – and most importantly retain – the top women in science.

The role of the media and science communication

Promoting the global visibility of scientists improves their job prospects. Yet popular science communicators are mostly men (think about Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, David Attenborough, Steven Hawking), with women scientists rarely showcased by the media. Helping women scientists improve their visibility can be a powerful way to improve their profiles.

There is also a wider gain to be made from improving the visibility of women in science, to provide the role models for the next generation of women scientists, and to push for implementation of change at both institutional and governmental levels to ensure women’s representation in science improves.

We hope that Soapbox Science is making some progress here by helping build a publicity portfolio for our speakers within the scientific and lay communities: our speakers attract a lot of media coverage, which boosts their profile within the scientific community and in the public domain. What institution would not want to employ a woman who stands on the streets of London, inspiring the public – young and old, and whose profile and work is noted and promoted on and offline?

There has been much talk in the media about women in science lately, and much hype about how to get more school girls into science. Our point here is that there is no single solution for balancing the gender gap in science: equal parenting rights will not solve the problem single-handedly, as not all women have/want a family; getting more girls into science at school is not going to solve the problem that most of them leave science in their 30s! Only through a collective sense of responsibility and willingness to implement brave changes at the governmental, institutional and societal level will the leaky pipe of gender inequality in science be well and truly sealed.

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  • greggf

    “To increase the representation of women in STEM fields…….”

    You need to start at school.
    My daughter is a civil engineer; she graduated from a Grand Ecole in Liile in 2012 and now works as a project manager on the Island of Réunion in the Indien Ocean.

    But she left Lycée with a “bac S” which is, in France, the most prestigious baccalaureat a pupil can obtain and commonly the bac held by most politicians. And that’s what Britain has to do – make leaving school with skills in numerate sciences more prestigious than only literate subjects.
    Changing the “A” level system might be one solution but another must be the re-introducton of grammar schools to challenge the monopoly on politics that certain private schools have re-asserted.

  • Chris Phillips

    There’s no doubt that it all starts in school and there’s no doubt that there aren’t enough women taking STEM degrees in universities. But, as our recent survey shows, at least women STEM undergraduates are pretty unanimous about a few things: they want a STEM career (no evidence that they yearn to join big-payers in the City); they don’t want special treatment and they think that employers could do more to make STEM careers more attractive for women. Full report here:

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