Does It Matter Anyway?

At a time when girls are reported to be out-performing boys in the classroom, there still seems to be a problem with women capitalising on their scientific qualifications. Unfortunately, policy-makers seem slow to take notice. But should they care--does it matter that women are not fulfilling their potential? Judith Glover thinks so.

A reader in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Surrey Roehampton, Glover is concerned enough to have spent the last 5 years looking at the question and coming up with some convincing arguments. In her recent book Women and Scientific Employment, * Glover suggests that there are four reasons why the underrepresentation of women in science is a serious issue. Firstly, equal opportunities--participation by both sexes is a question of fair treatment for all. Secondly, her 'economic returns' argument runs that governments need to see a return on the investment made in training the scientists of tomorrow. This links to her third point, that economic development is driven by scientific innovation, which depends on a highly educated workforce. Finally 'women would do it differently,' although Glover points out that the idea that women always bring a different approach to science is strongly contested.

Realistically, Glover thinks only the economic arguments will appeal to the powers that be. "We operate in capitalism; it's all about the race for economic growth," she says, and "we can show that women don't translate their scientific qualifications into scientific employment." After the investment that the state makes in training individuals, this wastage rate is simply not cost-effective. However, Glover has found that the data are patchy and the gaps need to be filled before the policy-makers will focus on the problem. She hopes that her current work with the European Commission to quantify the situation will begin to turn the tide and result in more constructive policies.

A crucial step forward would be to ensure that women returning to work after a career break get the financial support they need. "It's an absolute scandal," says Professor Gillian Gehring, a physicist at the University of Sheffield, "that there is no nationally based scheme for women in science to return after a career break." According to Gehring, if women are to get a fair chance, those who have taken career breaks must be offered something more than the 30 fellowships currently granted annually by the Daphne Jackson Trust. As Glover warns, the UK government has to be made to see that we can't keep losing the talented and qualified, or else the country's "economic growth, underpinned by scientific advances, is threatened."

* Macmillan Press, ISBN 0333683188, £42.50

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