Furthering Females

Two strategies are open to women scientists in higher education (HE) who want to achieve parity with their male colleagues: Behave like men, or put pressure on their institutions to accommodate the different career and lifestyle choices of women. That was the message from speakers at a conference held in London recently to discuss progress made during the first 2 years of the Athena Project. Launched in February 1999 with the aim of significantly increasing the number of women in top science, engineering, and technology academic posts by 2007, the project has made 12 grants to institutions so far for individual activities to promote Athena's goals. Six grant recipients presented the results of their work.

Bolton Institute, the University of East Anglia, Imperial College, Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), and Nottingham and Loughborough Universities have all developed mentoring programmes. Although these vary significantly in their design and deployment, in all cases mentees have become more aware of their skills and abilities and find that their careers benefit from the networking and support groups formed through the mentoring schemes. Those schemes that include male mentors are also highly successful and have the added benefit that mentees can view the differences in female and male attitudes toward career progression.

Results of Nottingham and Loughborough Universities' mentoring scheme found that women tend to hold back and assess their skills modestly whereas Bolton Institute's Marion Birch commented, "men apply for anything--skills or not," and "men tend to view career moves strategically." Marina Larios of SHU suggested, "male mentors can offer strategies for success in 'male clubs' where women need to learn these strategies to succeed." SHU's survey data indicates that men and women perceive different skills to be important for career progression. Whereas men think money-making skills are important, women value self-promotion skills.

Although not their only barrier to career progression, it is clear that women's biological role as child bearer and, more often than not, primary care giver, is not going to change in a hurry. Is it fair, then, to force women to behave like men in the workplace when there are fundamental differences in life commitments? Maybe institutions should tackle issues such as altering the male perspective of women in the workplace. Sue Cox, presenting for Nottingham and Loughborough Universities, noted that they had difficulty in recruiting women into their mentoring programme "due to problems of perceptions by male colleagues." In fact, many of the programmes ceased their Internet discussion bulletins for women due to negative male attitudes. Men seemed threatened by women's networking groups, viewing them as sexist, secretive, and discriminatory. Some wondered why equivalent groups for men only were not established, while others suspected that these discussions were forums for male-bashing. It appears that men in science, engineering, and technology (SET) need a greater appreciation of the problems that women face in male-dominated fields. Nottingham and Loughborough Universities reported that many women leave their careers due to lack of female role models, insufficient support and mutual shared experience, difficulty in finding adequate child care facilities, and the lack of flexibility in work schedules in order to balance family commitments.

The Open University's 'Beating Barriers and Constraints in HE Careers' scheme undertook a survey on the perceptions and practices of associate lecturers in science. The OU is currently more successful in recruiting women in SET compared to the national average. Their survey indicated that this might be due to the fact that lecturers receive induction training, are given mentors, are monitored by staff tutors, and receive professional, staff, and personal development training. They also have flexible hours, can work from home, take career breaks, and work part-time.

The data provided by the individual schemes presented at the conference should persuade other HE institutions that they need to adopt policies that increase the visibility of women in scientific academic posts. "The six development projects this year were selected because of ... their potential transferability. The conference was the beginning of the dissemination programme," explains Caroline Fox, Athena's programme manager. "The project's priorities are to continue to work with HE institutions to develop, share, encourage, and disseminate good practice, to increase the number of women working in SET, and to improve the career development of those women," she says. Reports on the individual projects have been sent to the head of every UK Higher Education institution and are available on the project Web site. However, project co-ordinators agree that for any such scheme to have an impact, it is imperative that it is high profile and receives support from senior staff. Otherwise, men and women alike are unaware of the issues and the programmes are under-utilised.

In the new year, Athena will become part of a new organisation called the 'Equality Challenge Unit'. Fox explains that the Equality Challenge Unit has been established in order to "improve equal opportunities for all who work, and seek to work, in the UK higher education sector". Conference panellists Baroness Diana Warwick, chief executive of CVCP, and Sir Brian Fender, chief executive of HEFCE, made it clear that the Equality Challenge Unit will not focus solely on the gender issue, and that bolstering the number of women in SET will be lumped into a broader pool of discrimination issues including racial equality and power struggles between administration, research, and technical teams. Whether or not bolstering the careers of women in SET will continue to be a priority for the unit remains to be seen.

To find out more about the Athena Project and what your institution can do locally to improve the prospects of women in SET, e-mail the project at athena@ic.ac.uk.

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