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A fine balance

In 1903, Marie Sklodowska Curie won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Since then, only 3% of all Nobel Prize winners across the three science categories have been female (with Dr. Curie leading the way with a further Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911). These statistics highlight the continuing gender imbalance in science; but what is causing the underrepresentation of women at higher levels of the career ladder? Why is it even important? Is anyone doing anything about it?

Encouraging women to both stay in and come back to science makes the scientific workforce in the UK stronger and more varied. This in turn affects our global competitiveness in science and innovation; the women leaving science are highly skilled and have spent many years training and learning, often toiling for a PhD in a highly specialised subject area. They are a valuable resource in the labour market.

Many women leave science to start a family or because they are disillusioned with science or face institutionalised sexism. Famously, Voltaire was said to have described the now-esteemed physicist Emilie du Chatelet (1706 – 1749) as “a great man whose only fault is being a woman”.

This type of prejudice is still apparent in the scientific arena. Returning to work after a career break is difficult as in the science, engineering and technology (SET) disciplines knowledge moves on rapidly. Rather than hitting a glass ceiling, there is a ‘leaky pipeline’ where the number of women drops off at higher levels. There are, however, differences across scientific disciplines; biological sciences and medicine have the highest percentage of women in senior academic positions (28.4 % in 2006/07) compared to other sciences such as chemistry (14 %), physics (9 %) and computing (5%).


What is being done? The Greenfield Report

In 2002, the Minister for Women and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, initiated a report to identify the relevant issues and barriers faced by women in SET and ways to improve the numbers of women entering and staying in these careers. The report was prepared by Baroness Susan Greenfield. Some of the recommendations included establishing a resource centre for women in SET, trebling the number of women in SET within three years, increasing the quota of women in faculty positions and developing ‘high flyer development programmes’. A response to this report was published by the Government in 2003 outlining their commitment and proposing strategies that would address many of these recommendations. The key initiative that was implemented from the report was funding for a new resource centre for women in SET, to advise employers and help to effect change. In addition, there have been changes to the existing legislation on employment hours, efforts to raise awareness of women in SET and additional funding for mentoring and networking schemes.


What has changed?

The most important development since the Greenfield report has been the arrival of the online ‘UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology’, launched in September 2004, followed by four hubs across the UK. These work closely with the private and public sectors to promote and aid women in SET, publishing frequent reports on the status of developments in this field. Statistics of the proportion of female senior academic staff in higher education facilities across the UK show that their numbers are slowly increasing.

More recently, in April 2009, the Government also brought in the latest of several new regulations on part-time flexible working hours, making it easier to balance work and family life. There are also many other positive schemes available for mentoring and development if one knows where to look; due to limited publicity many women are unaware that these services exist so it is difficult to quantify how precisely these have helped. Social networking sites and online communities have made reaching the target audience far more feasible; Interconnect is a career development group for female students, which has a Facebook group to update members of their activities.

The progress with women in SET is consistent and encouraging; recent improvements such as the Government funded ‘Resource Centre for Women in SET’ provide a good existing framework to support future developments in achieving gender equality within SET. There are still issues which need to be addressed and there is a long way to go before there is complete gender equality in SET, but every improvement benefits not only the women in question but the economy and society as a whole.

Jillian Adie is a fourth year PhD student in the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology


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