Or International Women’s week as the case appears to be at the University of Edinburgh. A diverse and engaging array of talks have been available for the public this week at the University and two of them in particular really caught my attention. Both focused on a question I’ve been feeling uneasy about for a good while now – Where are all the scientific women going?!
(graph taken from http://www.nature.com/news/inequality-quantified-mind-the-gender-gap-1.12550)
My course is made up of about ~450 undergraduate students from the schools of biological, biomedical and biochemical sciences. An immediate and striking observation is that the course is about 65% female. What baffles me is that the majority (a good 75%) of the teaching staff are male. Why are all the women mysteriously disappearing from biology? It’s certainly not because they are no good at it – plenty of the women I meet on this course are thoroughly intellectually driven and capable of high achievements. Through the duration of my studies this inequality has has scratched away in the back of my mind. This week I got the opportunity to find out what’s actually going on.
The talk was held by Professor Lesley Yellowlees – a woman of such accomplishment it made me tired just hearing about all of the wonderful things she’s done. She is one of three female chemistry professors within the school of chemistry, compared to at least five male professors. This is one of the best ratios seen for male-female professor ratios in the whole school of Science and Engineering. The talk was very well informed and highlighted the issue of women leaving the STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics careers at a considerably higher percentage than men. The phenomena was referred to as the “Leaky Pipeline” wherein the higher the level of education (undergrad, PhD, postdoc, lecturer, Professor) the more rapid the decline in females. This was true across all of the STEM subjects, even in biology where it is more readily assumed that the gender inequality is less significant. By the time post-doc is reached the men are once again outnumbering the women, even though there were less of them at undergrad level. After assaulting us all with an array of data demonstrating this across all fields and every country Professor Yellowlees enlightened us as to why this drop off seems to be occurring.
Each of the points seems immediately obvious once pointed out. And it’s quite simple to see how each of these factors though in an isolated incident may seem trivial, in fact accumulate to hold back a woman’s ability to advance in STEM careers.
CHILDCARE – Firstly, and I’m sure the one that first comes to everyone’s minds – Lack of childcare support. This blocks the careers of women across all disciplines not just in STEM subjects. I was encouraged to hear that a creche is being built as we speak in the building I study in. This seems more of a practical problem rooted in policy and can be tackled on a company to company basis. Though statistically women are the primary care givers this is social construct is slowly beginning to change. A wide scale change in maternity/paternity childcare policies that provides support for individuals who choose to temporarily leave their careers would benefit women most of all, as at the moment they have no way of re-entering at the point they left off. Suggested a the lecture were ‘Catch up’ days, where those on leave could meet up with colleagues once a week to keep up to date on the work progress and basically stay in the loop. On this note, there is no reason that meetings can be arranged at times more suitable to parents, ideally NOT at 8am or 5pm when parental responsibilities will prevent attendance.
UNCONSCIOUS BIAS – This is a troublesome thought. There is some evidence to suggest that though we may not realise it, when selecting successful job applicants we have an unconscious bias that holds each applicant to a stereotyped, male ideal. A study in the U.S recently demonstrated that when academics were presented with two CV’s, identical but for the name ‘John’ or ‘Jennifer’ written at top, the male CV was more likely to be offered a job and at a higher starting salary than when the female CV was offered the job. Disheartening indeed. This was true of even the female academics who feel they advocate equality within their field. An interesting point to follow this is that it is also proven that when choosing students to undertake often academics will subconsciously seek students in their likeness (sex, race, background etc). The only suggestion I can think of at the moment to overcome this is to make sure interviews are offered to all that qualify for the job, and that all diversities of people are equally and fairly considered. Seems quite idealistic though. Any thoughts on how to overcome our innate prejudices?
Sadly I think our current predicament regarding the lack of female role models in STEM definitely reinforces this unconscious bias. Men dominate the top of all the STEM careers, men are making the decisions, appearing in the public and teaching our undergraduates. What does this plant in our minds? Does it imply to young people that STEM subjects are ‘for men’? I think it might. If young women think they are going to have no chance at a successful career in that area, it might kill their passion for the subject a little bit. Though there are definitely some brilliant individuals that thrive on the knowledge and passion for the subject alone, we can’t all be expected to be motivated in such a way. Job security and working long hours were some of the reasons quoted by women who had left the STEM careers.
(Just to clarify here, when I say ‘left the STEM careers’ what I mean is completely left behind the knowledge they have gained in their degree, switching from biology to chemistry for example would not be included in leaving the field as they are still in a STEM career)
ROLE MODELS – Or lack thereof. Young women need more role models in the STEM subjects. Successful women in STEM are definitely out there. They may be decidedly outnumbered, but they are there and they are brilliant. If young women have someone to look up to, seek advice from and aspire to be like, they might feel like it’s worth taking their careers to the next step in academia. A provocative question springs forward from this problem – should there be quotas for academic boards to fill with women? Some people would argue that this is ‘tokenism’ and it reduces the validity of the careers of the women who have ‘really worked to deserve the position’ and would result in mediocre women being promoted to ‘fill the numbers’. I’m not so sure, I think there are plenty of capable women that could be represented in academic boards. If men and women are equal in their capabilities (which they are) then either there are lots of mediocre men on the boards, or the women aren’t getting places. Any thoughts on this area?
Successful female scientists definitely have a responsibility to become good role models for the next generation. They need to engage with the public, spread information that will help budding young female scientists, advocate women in STEM subjects and support women trying to reach the top of the ladder. Be inspiring.
So where are all the STEM learned females going? Most of them seem to end up in non-tenure positions, in faculty jobs, admin jobs unrelated to their degree, in low-status universities.
Though the march towards equality is progressing it seems women in STEM have a lot of obstacles to overcome to be viewed and treated the same as their male counterparts.
Well that’s just a few of my thoughts, I have plenty more where that came from but I’m getting tired and I have work tomorrow! Please feel free to comment, engage and discuss with me!