Women in Science

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Science is a profession historically dominated by men. The last few decades have seen massive advances for women in science, and many attempts have been made to attract more women to the profession. But despite this, science is still stubbornly male dominated. This is especially true at the highest levels of academia. Here in the UK, only 1 in 5 professors are female. (1)  Post-PhD level is thought to be the biggest problem, with women who have completed their PhDs dropping out at far higher rates than their male counterparts. 72% of women at the start of their PhDs say that they want to pursue a career in science, by the end of their studies this figure falls to 37%. Men however may start with only 61% wanting to continue in science, but 59% still want to stay by the end of their PhDs. (2) Now those working in science, and policies makers for governments, are trying to figure out why. What is it about scientific academia that is putting off women so much, but isn’t having the same effect on men?

By chance, my own research group is made up almost entirely by women. With so many female scientists in one place, over lunch I take the chance to ask them their views of women in science today. Do they think women are inherently disadvantaged? What do they think is putting women off of careers in scientific academia?

Whilst the trend may seem to be against women in science, most of the women I spoke to had never individually felt like they had been discriminated against in their work because of their gender. “It’s nothing within the system that’s pushing women out, but maybe just personal and other pressures” commented one post-doctoral researcher. However, all of the women said they saw a drop off in women between PhD, to postdoc, on through fellowships and professorships. The reasons why they thought this happened differed greatly. Many of them blamed motherhood, saying that they thought many female scientists were simply choosing to leave to have children.

This is a huge problem for women in every sector. They are still expected to be primary care-givers to children, and so expected to be the ones to sacrifice their careers for family. It is, however, thought to be a particular problem in academia. Some say that academic science simply does not suit part time work, with long and unusual working hours often required to run experiments. Others argue that women find it difficult to get back into science after years away, because they will no longer be on top of the latest research, and so disadvantaged compared to colleagues who have not taken time off.  But things are changing. Most universities now offer flexible and part time work for parents, and both genders are taking advantage of this. Whilst scientific working hours are highly variable, with a lot of forward planning they can be flexible enough to meet childcare needs. Women and men with children are running labs, and doing it incredibly successfully.

Another problem that a career in scientific academia poses to family life is the period spent doing post-doctoral research. To work in academia, scientists after their PhD have to work as post-doctoral researchers for several years before progressing further up their career path. These positions are often very short term, which means moving regularly to secure new jobs, and a lack of job security. (2) A woman’s post PhD late 20s is the time many will be thinking about having children. Several of the women in my own lab said that they thought women just don’t think a scientific career will be able to fit in with their family lives. Men do not seem to have the same concerns, as they may put off having children until their position is more secure, or they may have a woman at home who will take the childcare responsibilities. Until societies changes its expectation of women as primary caregivers, this is unlikely to change.

Whilst the women I spoke to may not think they’ve been discriminated against because of their gender, a study in the journal PNAS earlier this year clearly demonstrated an inherent gender bias within academia. The study gave academics at research intensive universities applications for a laboratory manager position at their university. The gender of the applicant was randomly assigned. Those in the study on average rated the male applicant as more hireable, gave them a higher starting salary, and offered more career mentoring than they did to an identical female applicant. And it wasn’t just the male academics who were showing gender bias, women were just as likely to favour male applicants. The authors blame the effects of societal stereotypes on women’s competent in science. (3) Gender bias in science is real.

A final year PhD from my own lab was hopeful, “things are already changing” she said. But for real equality, more needs to be done. The problems facing women in science are similar to those in most other areas; mainly that society still expects women to look after children. Until this changes (and things are moving in the right direction, for example; changes to shared parental leave to be implemented from 2015 (4) the position of women in science is unlikely to change. Just as importantly, men and women at the top of the scientific profession need to take a long look at the way they view women applying for posts with them.

Both of these problems come down primarily to societal attitudes toward the role of women, rather than scientific work itself. Science may be more difficult for parents, but that should be a separate issue to its relationship with gender. Unsurprisingly, studies have found that women do much better in science in countries where they enjoy factors such as equal representation in government, and high economic status (5), places where they’re less likely to have these societal pressures. Only as women become more equal in society as a whole will they be able to achieve equality in science.

Article by Rebecca Montacute. Edited by David Jeffery.

Works Cited

1. [Online] http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/07/09/women-in-science-plug-the-leaky-career-pipes-by-challenging-social-norms/.

2. [Online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/may/24/why-women-leave-academia.

3. [Online] http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/14/1211286109.full.pdf+html.

4. [Online] http://news.bis.gov.uk/Press-Releases/Mums-and-dads-will-share-parental-leave-68330.aspx.

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  • James

    Interesting article. Unfortunately, there is probably a limit to what ‘society’ can do; as with many professions, the higher up one progress the greater the challenge is juggling ‘family’ and ‘work’, especially when one gets to the stage where working overtime may be regularly expected.

    Also, with the lab. manager study, have you considered that it might have far more to do with the perception of a woman managing a large lab., as opposed to her competence in science?