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The academic gender gap isn’t going away

Posted by on March 6, 2014

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Jess Devonport, marketing and communications officer, and Barbara Knowles, senior science policy advisor at the Society of Biology, discuss the recent report, Women in Scientific Careers.

There has been continued conversation over recent years about the gender gap in STEM careers, particularly in academia and senior roles, and if the recent Science and Technology Committee Women in Scientific Careers report showed anything, it’s that the gender gap isn’t going away.

Ada Lovelace has become the poster girl for women in STEM careers.

Ada Lovelace has become the poster girl for women in STEM careers.

The report has conscientiously and thoroughly collected the evidence to show that women are not staying in scientific careers (for the biosciences), or not even starting (for physics and chemistry).  Andrew Miller MP has expressed his astonishment at the continued under-representation of women in senior academic roles across all scientific disciplines.

Except, these findings aren’t astonishing at all. The scientific sector remains institutionally sexist – women are paid less, awarded fewer grants, and are more likely to leave the profession than their male counterparts. When only 0.45% of PhD graduates become professors, and 15% of bioscience professors are female, women in senior positions are scarce to say the least. But what can be done to support and encourage women to reach the higher levels of the profession?

The report called for universities to review the academic career structure and increase the number of long-term post-doctoral research positions available. Reducing the impact of career breaks on future professional advancement will, no doubt, benefit women. However, universities cannot be held to be solely accountable for the lack of security and short-term contracts that are inherent in academic life, when the nature of the funding for the work is also short-term.

Unconscious bias has been shown to exist and affect recruitment practices, including perception of competency, likelihood to hire, and starting wage. So, the report’s suggestion that mandatory diversity and equality training is introduced for recruitment panels and line managers isn’t unreasonable, but nor is it ahead of the curve.

This all leaves the question of what more can be done to address the leaky pipeline. Initiatives such as Athena Swan, Soapbox Science, and ScienceGrrl are dedicated to raising the profile and visibility of women in science, but the STEM sector should not be treated in isolation.

It’s surprising that the numerous reports on how to attract and retain and promote more women in STEM don’t seem to look at other professions and careers for examples of good practice. Norway has taken the lead by introducing mandatory quotas requiring that executive boards for public limited companies are at least 40% female, with many other countries following suit. This has kick-started the process of hiring more women, and helped to formalise the appointments process, but has it changed attitudes? A recent report from Harvard Business School suggests that striking the balance between work and family is still largely seen as a women’s issue; so perhaps a change in policy that allows men to take on more responsibility for childcare is needed, and greater efforts to address the cultural stereotyping that has led to these gender-based expectations.

Despite MPs’ recent rejection of an EU directive for similar quotas for boardroom representation, many sectors, notably the legal professions, have voluntarily adopted such targets. However, these efforts, which may be with the best of intentions, fail to address the mid-career leaks in the pipeline; and do nothing to correct the underlying discrimination faced by women and other minority groups.

Many employers, such as the civil service and NHS, appear to have greatly improved their gender balance at senior levels, and sectors such as science policy and communications have much greater gender equality. What makes them so attractive as employers and what can the academic community learn from them? Is there an opportunity to work with other sectors and take a more holistic approach?

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