Women in Science: Why Can’t this Problem be Fixed?

The newspapers these days run almost daily stories about sexism and women being disadvantaged in one way or another (plus the occasional response that it is men that are being hit hardest by current circumstances). For women in STEM the issue is manifest, particularly on the physical sciences and engineering side. Not for nothing has the Science and Technology Select Committee recently been taking evidence about the problems.  However we should be careful to distinguish between problems about supply – problems about schools and parental expectations for instance, which may drive girls out of subjects like physics – from problems that apply to those in the workforce who suffer from implicit and explicit bias and other subtle (or not-so-subtle) disadvantages. In the latter category there are many further sub-divisions of problems. This post comes in two parts addressing different aspects of these latter issues.

At the bottom of this post there is a piece I wrote at the request of the Fabian Society for their online publication (it first appeared on November 25th) in the wake of the Select Committee enquiry I mention above. This piece briefly considers what organisations can do to improve their workplace culture and why without improvements the pipeline will go on spewing out talented women from the academic ladder. I know that some people object to this ‘leaky pipeline’ analogy since they see it as implying those who leave have ‘failed’: many may leave for perfectly good reasons of their own which have nothing to do with an inimical working environment or pressures acting against them. However, I worry about those who leave with regret because they are constantly passed over or the obstacles placed in their way are higher than those their contemporary male colleagues have to face. These are the ones who genuinely ‘leak’ in the way I mean the phrase.

However before my reposting of this published piece I offer some initial thoughts prompted by a workshop organised by the ERC I participated in this morning in Brussels aimed at exploring some of these obstacles and what may be done within the specific context of research funding and funders. I will write more about this meeting at a later date when I’ve had time to digest the discussions and sort through my notes on what was a very stimulating meeting; this is just an initial brief outline of some key facts from the workshop, at which many leading players presented their views. As I have written before, the ERC is greatly concerned by the lower success rate amongst women than men across all domains and at all stages of awards. However, at least they are looking at this problem and trying to work out what they, as a funder, can do. It would be good to have confidence that all funders – research councils or charities alike – are doing as much. I am not convinced that they all monitor their statistics, let alone consider if their own actions could be affecting the outcomes. I hope the ERC’s actions, by being the conscience for European funders whilst still maintaining focus on research excellence, will stimulate other funders to follow suit.

One simple action the ERC will be introducing for the next rounds is unconscious bias training for panels. It is straightforward enough to remind chairs (and indeed all panel members) that we are all, men and women, prone to underrate women. There is plenty of evidence (see e.g. here) to support this statement. If we are reminded of this fact, it is less clear whether we change our behaviour but at least we should be more aware of what we’re doing. If referees routinely give less positive statements about women than about men, using fewer ‘standout’ adjectives as has been suggested, then panels can attempt to take this into account. It is of course fiendishly difficult to do so fairly in practice. Maybe the woman really is less outstanding and, without knowing the individual concerned except through the words of a referee, how do you tell? But the panel members themselves will also be forming judgements of their own and they too need to realise how their own internal schema may be being unconsciously affected by gender. The panel chairs have a particular responsibility here.

Separately from how women may be disadvantaged in their applications by the way so many of us read their paperwork as less worthy and their track records as less brilliant than men, there is a totally different aspect of grant writing that has a strong gender element. This is the area that Londa Schiebinger has been championing for some time, both within Europe and in the US. There may well be an implicit gender question in a research project. It should not be sufficient to put in an excellent grant application that considers (for instance) treatments for cardiovascular disease without spelling out how the efficacy will be judged for men and women; or to overlook the fact that men as well as women suffer from osteoporosis (it is so often described only as a post-menopausal problem) and that what works for one sex may not be the same as for the other.

More broadly, as Londa put it today, there are 3 fixes needed:

  1. Fix the numbers of women (NB this is not the same as fixing the women!)
  2. Fix the Institutions. This is of course where the UK’s Athena Swan awards enters into the equation, and Sarah Dickinson was present to lay out the ideas behind this benchmarking scheme for other European countries to consider.
  3. Fix the knowledge – which is where the need to embed sex and gender in the research design itself is so important.

I would add a fourth ‘fix’ needed, which is to fix the mindsets of those who form judgements be it on grants, on job applicants or on what ‘excellence’ means, for instance for those whose career trajectory may have deviated from the norm.  The issue of ‘unconventional careers’ was discussed by Claarte Vinkenburg who is leading on a project (ERCareers) drilling down into ERC applications to analyse how applicants present their careers and how this affects their success.

The ERC Gender Balance Working Group will no doubt continue to consider what actions they themselves can take or encourage to be incorporated in the new Horizon2020 programme for the ERC. To solve the problems requires a programme of work that has many strands, only some of which are within the ERC’s own control. This morning’s meeting gave much food for thought, recommendations of actions we might be able to enact and a stimulus to continue the dialogue across the globe. More will follow when I am not tied up with the rest of the ERC’s Scientific Council meeting!


What follows is the unedited version of a post that first appeared on the Fabian Society’s blog on November 25th 2013 with the title:

‘Why are there still so few women in science?’

The Science and Technology Select Committee  has been considering the position of women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) academic subjects, its primary question being quite simply

Why do numbers of women in STEM academic careers decline further up the career ladder?

along with a few supplementary follow-on questions. Written and oral evidence has been collected and presumably a report will be forthcoming sometime soon. The depressing thing is that, worthy though this enquiry is, the same question has been asked time and time again over at least the last couple of decades. Answers seem in short supply. Or more correctly, answers that have had significant lasting impact seem to be in short supply. There is plenty of evidence (see e.g. this IOP report) to demonstrate the steady attrition rate of women as one moves up the academic ladder. The reasons are complex and multi-facetted, which is precisely why the challenge is so great.

It would be naïve to think that the only issue is the problem of taking time out for maternity leave and finding affordable childcare, although solving the prevalent practical problem of local good nurseries could do no harm. Academic life, once one has a permanent position, is relatively flexible but unfortunately the average age of obtaining such a tenured position has systematically increased (for men and women). This means that the job insecurity and short term contracts endured by many early career researchers are ever more likely to coincide with the time when they may want to start a family. Many women feel this is too high and uncertain a price to pay and so get out of the competitive world of academia. Additionally, if an academic woman has a fellow academic as a partner, finding jobs (let alone permanent positions) for both in the same city can be a further major obstacle.

Those are the very obvious and practical problems. But there are many more subtle and cultural issues I personally believe are just as important. When drawing up a shortlist for a position, does a department simply look for people who look like them, their own unconscious biases thereby restricting the diversity of those whom they interview and subsequently appoint? A recent study has reinforced earlier findings that CV’s labelled with a woman’s name fare less well than those identified as male even when they are identical.  Worse, since many institutions will have photographs on the walls of their successful ‘old boys’, who will typically be male, then women entering the building may feel a sinking feeling of being ‘different’ and actually underperform due to the well-researched problem of ‘stereotype threat‘. The working environment may continue to reinforce male, typically competitive if not actually laddish, culture.  Many women will simply not want to battle on against job insecurity in a climate like that however gifted they may be.

Of course there are moves to counter such negatives. The Athena Swan awards (at bronze, silver and gold levels) recognize universities and STEM departments that are taking stock of their position around gender and pro-actively working to improve the working environment.  More and more departments are getting involved in this scheme and it is to be hoped that there will be tangible and quantitative measures of the scheme’s success in the near future: there are many examples of good practice which should in time feed through to improved numbers.

Nevertheless, the cultural expectation that a scientist is male, reinforced daily through print and visual media, is deeply ingrained. Our schools too often perpetuate that myth, encouraging girls to go on work experience in a hairdressers or retail outlets, and sending the boys to garages or factories to broaden their minds. Cultural conditioning seems to start almost from birth in the toys we buy for our children and the subliminal messages we collectively give. This cultural stereotyping may well be the hardest obstacles of all to overcome.


This entry was posted in Equality, Women in Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Women in Science: Why Can’t this Problem be Fixed?

  1. Alasdair says:

    Great summary as always. I had a couple of thoughts. You mention two broad reasons why people might “leak”- to enter another career path willingly or because of “regret”. Is there not a third category as well- that is, those who start a PhD out of interest and with an open mind but end up being put off by academic culture early on and end up going elsewhere? They may not regret the decision to leave, but were things different these talented individuals may have been retained.

    I was glad to see the issue of post-doc/early-career contracts brought up at the STSC debates, particularly the negative effects it has on relationships and careers with one or both partners forced to move around the country. From a post-doctoral standpoint, there seems to be little drive to change this structure currently- I was at the Vitae Research Staff Association conference in early November and the issue was raised but seemingly met with resigned acceptance. Is there any chance this situation will change? Particularly the abundance of 6-12mth contracts.


  2. Lee says:

    I actually think that the problem is more complex. For instance, law was extremely male dominated. I remember one female partner telling me how her firm went to a men’s club to celebrate her becoming a partner, and she had to wear a tie! But women are going into law, in large numbers. No doubt these women face the same biases against them.

    Why women are comfortable choosing areas like architecture, law and medicine, that are very competitive, but shy away from physics, maths, IT etc., is an interesting question. If people are going to blame the wider culture, then they need to be able to explain why lots of women go into architecture but not engineering, or medicine but not physics. This is not easy to explain. I seriously doubt that the issue is cultural, since women have overcome these barriers in other sectors, otherwise we would have 20% of lawyers and doctors being female.

    In terms of jobs, the only way to get more objective outcomes is to place 90% of the decision on anonymous testing (or equivalent), and 10% on a face-to-face interview. Though I doubt many employers would consider this. As soon as someone walks in the door with a funny eye, hair that’s too long or short, female, etc., then it biases the decision. The bias isn’t simply against women, but everyone who isn’t a short-haired, white male, without a funny eye. (Unless they’re brilliant.)

  3. Pingback: Culture eats strategy for lunch: a better path towards gender balance

  4. Pingback: How is gender bias in science studied? IV. The future | Science, I Choose You!

Comments are closed.