Women in Science: Is Gender an Issue in Science and Engineering Employment?

Increasing numbers of women are going into higher education, so shouldn't we be seeing increasing numbers of women being promoted and achieving professorial status? Yet even in biology, where for decades a high percentage of graduates have been women, fewer than 10% of professors are women. There is an urgent need to examine equal opportunity policies in both academia and industry and to evaluate employment practices and promotion processes.

Whether gender is an issue depends on who you are, your experiences, the stage of your career, and, perhaps, the discipline in which you work. Many of us fervently believe that things must have changed since the "old days," that men have changed and employers have changed too. Partners are supportive, employers practice equal opportunities and we can seize the opportunities that present themselves to us. And yet the statistics show that women are underpaid: In academia, women professors are earning some £6000 less than equivalent male colleagues. Women are overrepresented in short-term contracts, and few women put themselves forward for the European Union Framework Programme expert and advisory bodies. Recent work from the Wellcome Trust and the research councils shows that fewer women are applying for research funds than their male counterparts, even though they are equally successful when they do. Are we our own worst enemy? Or is it the employment framework and culture within which we work that is doing a disservice to women?

If you had asked me even a few years ago whether I thought gender was an issue working in science, I would have disputed it. I would have said that women who didn't get on were whining and that if they couldn't stand the heat they should get back to the kitchen. Sure, I had my own share of "experiences"--I endured the jibes from technicians about wasted talent and babies and developed a good line in conversation during the Grand Prix season. But in retrospect, there was subtle and persistent teasing: the "girl's job/boy's job" low-level banter. I liken it to a gentle jabbing in the arm with a finger. It doesn't hurt and there is no evidence of harm, but as time goes on it starts to get sore. It undermines confidence and wears you down. But it is only recently, through talking to large numbers of junior and senior women scientists and engineers, that I have come to realise that these experiences are both common and not acceptable. These are wearing, emotional issues for us to deal with over and above the normal job-related stresses.

These problems aside, there are practical matters that can affect the promotion and progression of women:

  • Getting in: Do interview panels have a gender mix?

  • Getting on: Are promotion panels and assessment processes transparent?

  • Getting back: If women are to take career breaks and want to return to a science-related career, it is important that they have access to training and development and that systems allow them to regain access to the work place in a way that allows men and women to manage family and career.

  • I became involved in the Women's Engineering Society during the first few weeks of my Ph.D. Someone gave a seminar on the society and I helped set up a university group. We set up an outreach programme to go into schools and talk about our research. Working in renewable energy meant I was a popular act. I wanted to make sure that other girls had access to information that I felt wasn't available to me. My interest in science writing led me to work on the society journal and attend the annual conference. I met some wonderful and exciting characters: lively and independent women who had enjoyed a great variety of experiences in their careers and who were working on some amazing projects--building underwater human-powered vehicles, doing research in hydrogeology in Liberia, and modeling speech in humans.
    I never set out to be so actively involved in promoting science and engineering as a career. My current job is more a culmination of putting all of my previous expertise and skills into practice in an area where I might be able to make a difference. Often the activities and efforts are driven by volunteers, retired scientists/engineers, and busy career women managing responsible jobs and families. Time and money is scarce and if we are to tackle both cause and effect of having few women contributing to the U.K. economy then we must all pull together. The Department of Trade and Industry's focus on promoting women in science, engineering, and technology (SET) aims to try to help achieve this through:
    Developing exciting, fun, and positive images of SET careers targeted at girls.
  • Developing career management tools, including the careers planning book Cracking It! , targeted at women already in, or planning, SET careers.

  • Facilitating activities run by the largely volunteer societies and associations involved in promoting SET or in networking. These include developing a database of trained role model speakers for schools and piloting a mentoring programme for women in SET.

  • Working to improve the U.K. infrastructure to enable women to make a fuller contribution to the knowledge-based economy.

Having university contract research experience as well as working in industry and marketing are all elements of my skills portfolio that help me to achieve the objectives of the Promoting SET Unit.

So yes, there are gender issues in SET employment. There are the colleagues and bosses who, probably without realising it, have expectations about the contribution and role of women. There are the policies that aren't put into practice. There are the systems, developed by men for men, and the employment environment or culture that has grown up around the systems. And of course we have ourselves to blame. If we are to harness the valuable contribution that women have to make to SET in the U.K., we need to work hard to develop practices and cultures that really do embrace women and make more women seek the rewarding and fulfilling careers that many of us have enjoyed.

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