There is a danger that the message that there is an uneven playing field for women in science (and indeed in many other fields) has been repeated so often that it is no longer heard. However, it is still true. Study after study has shown how women are, in ways that may be subtle or not so subtle, disadvantaged at every stage of their career trajectory. The reasons for this are myriad, ranging from cues from societal pressures and culture, as exemplified by the dreadful ‘I’m too pretty to do math t-shirts’ I’ve discussed before, to people’s preconceptions about what a scientist should be like at interview, to the challenges of combining the intense life of a bench scientist with having a family. The ASSET survey provides a longitudinal study of how men and women feel about their life as scientists in academia: the full report on the most recent survey, carried out in early 2010, has just been released. This survey asks individuals – men and women – to comment on how well they feel their careers have progressed, what they feel has made most difference to them, and how they believe they are perceived and fit in to their working environment. The report should be a call to arms for departments and institutions to sit down and consider how things really are for their employees. Institutions will have been sent their own local data to compare with national averages and analyse what their workforce are happy with and what less so. I would urge all PVC’s or HR managers to consider their strengths and weaknesses and act upon the findings – my own university will certainly be doing this. Then, maybe, when the next ASSET survey is carried out – as I hope it will be – there will be a marked reduction of the differences between men and women at all stages of the career ladder.
The data shows that still, women feel disadvantaged in many ways – and that the gaps between men’s and women’s perceptions are decreasing only very slowly. It is hard to make absolute comparisons between the years, because the questions are not always identical, but it is clear that things are still far from parity. When the raw data was first put out some months ago, I wrote about some of the key issues that I saw lurking in the data. Reiterating the message above that institutions should respond to the findings, I hope they will take note of some of the following.
Having read the report, one thing I find particularly dispiriting is the fact that even in things that one would have thought were driven purely by process there are differences, notably in how often individuals are appraised. Why should this be so? Why should women be less likely to be appraised? Now, not everyone finds appraisal useful but I would hazard a guess women would be actually more likely to respond positively than men because so often they seek and value external validation of how they are performing. But, leaving aside the gender angle, it is also clear from the results that the more senior you are the more likely you are to be appraised. This is simply illogical. If resources for carrying out appraisals are limited, the people who will derive most benefit are the early career researchers, not the established faculty. So, direct resources to where they can be of most assistance not waste them on those whose futures are already secured.
Rather like equal pay reviews, organisations should be asking themselves if their promotions’ procedures are fair and whether men and women fare equally well – and if not why not. But hiding behind this lurks the question of whether men and women are equally likely to apply for promotion. The ASSET survey shows, as it has on previous occasions, that women seem to be less familiar with the promotion criteria and processes than men. This is worrying. It means that they are less likely to feel confident in putting in an application in the first place, perhaps thinking they need to wait for someone to tap them on the shoulder saying it’s OK and/or wise to put their name forward. Furthermore, around a quarter of women feel they suffer from a lack of useful feedback and advice about their career trajectories and what they should be doing to further their prospects, whereas hardly any men responded in the same way. Maybe this is just another example of women being more diffident than men; not that the men were actually being given better advice but that they didn’t feel they needed it in the first place. Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same: the women feel disadvantaged and organisations need to explore whether they genuinely are and if so what can be done to remove any differences, simultaneously with reassuring the women so that they feel more comfortable and confident.
It is interesting to see to what men and women attribute their success. I also find it instructive to compare the answers to this question with the earlier surveys: it seems that everyone feels they work much harder now than they used to, with almost everyone (upwards of 95% in 2010) attributing their success, at least in part, to hard work this time around; this is to be compared with figures of only 72% for male postdocs and 81% for male professors in 2006. Interesting that this has changed so markedly in the last 5 years. Beyond this factor, men are more likely to attribute some of their success to luck than women (as I have discussed before), women more likely to value their partners’ support.
This survey deals predominantly with perceptions and feelings, but a final striking conclusion is that women by and large feel less well integrated into their departments than men. Being a minority, as one suspects many of them will be, is rarely comfortable. Furthermore, men are more likely to report being encouraged to undertake activities viewed as valuable for career progression and this ties in with the earlier comments about promotion; they also reported being more likely to have been invited to apply for higher level posts and to receive support from senior colleagues. These may appear to be relatively little things, but nevertheless together they can add up to a substantial disadvantage for women over a lifetime.
To end on an optimistic note, it is heartening to see that in comparison with faculty, the responses from postdocs indicate a greater feeling of optimism among the women, and smaller differences with men. Let us hope this really does translate into an improving climate. However, such improvements will only happen with the goodwill, determination and explicit leadership by example of senior management across the higher education sector. It is more than time for action to remedy the problems that each successive survey has highlighted.
Hannah Devlin has written her own very interesting commentary on the report on the Times Eureka website.