Women in Science: the Need for Research

Next Wave reported recently that there is a strong line of thinking that says women in science need to be studied less, but that more action needs to be taken on their behalf ( Enough Talk, Let's See Some Action!). Is this true? As organiser of the Athena conference on New Research on Women, Science and Higher Education reported in that article, I would question that view.

Over the years there have been many policy initiatives aimed at encouraging women to pursue careers in science. We are now seeing major efforts being channelled into this area at European as well as national levels.

The UK has been active in the policy arena throughout the 1990s, with initiatives that have focused both on equality of opportunity in academia and on improving the situation of women in science. These initiatives have included setting up the Commission on University Career Opportunity (now incorporated into the Equality Challenge Unit), the Rising Tide committee, and the Promoting SET for Women Unit in the Office of Science and Technology.

And yet we still have a major problem. Very few women make it into top academic positions, and the number of women Fellows of the Royal Society has increased painfully slowly. As one speaker at the conference pointed out, even in the Nordic countries, where the equality agenda has been stronger than in many other European countries, there is still a startling lack of progress. This contrasts with other high-status fields, such as medicine and law, where women's participation has markedly increased, albeit in particular specialities within these occupations. Why is this so?

It seems that policy is not working adequately for women in science. Instead, the wheels are reinvented; the problems constantly restated. One can only conclude that the fundamental reasons underlying women's poor prospects in science are not being tackled, otherwise we would not still be holding these conferences. Clearly we need more research that looks at the fine-grained detail of the scientific culture. This is a matter not only of numbers but about how people experience their working lives and what bearing policy has, if any, on the quality of their experiences. Gender, race, disability and class are central to questions of participation and progress in careers, but rarely are they sufficiently high on the agenda of the research bodies.

In my view the dialogue between scientists and social scientists (of which I am one) needs to be stepped up. We need to develop an agenda for both research and policy that is properly co-ordinated and collaborative. This is why Athena was set up, to include both research--my job--and an active side that focuses on university-based projects such as the development grants. Important new research is emerging in this area that needs to be brought to the attention of policy-makers--hence the need for the conference that Next Wave reported on. Our hope is that this approach--with mutually informed research, policy, and action programs--may be a route toward success in the outcomes we are seeking.

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