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Sowing the Seeds of Change

It may be a bit early to say that there will be a rich harvest of career opportunities for women in science, but at the Athena dissemination conference held at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh last month it seemed that the seeds of change are starting to be sown. The Athena Project, which is a UK-wide initiative that aims to increase the number of women working in science, engineering, and technology (SET) at all levels of higher education (HE), and to improve their career development, awards development grants to HE institutions for pilot projects that address those aims. The conference heard reports of the five development projects awarded grants in summer 2000. All focussed on the organisational culture of SET and HE, and the processes and practices that present barriers to women's career progression.

Studies, many of which used a combination of information-gathering techniques such as questionnaires and focus groups, were conducted at the Universities of Edinburgh, Luton, Oxford, Surrey, and at Heriot-Watt. A number of themes emerged across the diverse institutions.

One major problem appears to be women's reluctance to put themselves forward, either for jobs in the first place, or for promotion. The University of Oxford undertook a project to identify the reasons why so few women in SET apply for lecturer posts, despite the fact that they are appointed to such jobs in proportion to their applications. They talked to women already at Oxford, in other research-active HE institutions, and in industry and held a conference on women in science in July. One key barrier to application seemed to be the university's continuing image as a white, male institution, and appointments, particularly for more senior posts, were assumed to be based on an "old boys network", rather than on merit. However, many of the problems identified were not "Oxford specific" but applied to most HE institutions.

At Heriot-Watt it was found that women are as likely as men to get promotion, once they have applied. However, 63% of the women surveyed thought that there were barriers to promotion generally, and 47% felt they existed at Heriot-Watt. Some of the barriers were perceived (for example, that women's achievements for promotion need to be higher than those of men) and some were real, such as family commitments. Awareness of promotion procedures, including the criteria used, was very low. The project team of Professor Raffaella Ocone, Dr Liz Elvidge, and Suzanne Massie met with Heads of Department (HODs), who confirmed that promotion was based on research, not teaching, and on the number of publications, which affects women taking maternity leave and those coming from industry. Some solutions have been proposed, including the introduction of departmental seminars on promotion procedures, clarifying criteria for promotion, and recognising that maternity leave results in reduced research output. These will form part of a university-wide action plan to be implemented within the next year.

One of the outcomes of the University of Surrey project, presented by Dr Nicole Rockliff, has been the formation of a women's SET forum. The forum has been used to make women more aware of promotion procedures, which were seen as "unstructured and flawed, being hugely dependent on the HOD." As a result of the project it is hoped that promotion procedures will become more transparent, and a future scheme will pair junior academics with more senior colleagues to advise them on CV's and preparing for promotion.

Women's representation on academic committees is also a problem. A survey at the University of Luton found that women represented 70% of the membership of administrative committees, but only 13% of the "important" research committees. Similarly, at Surrey women were underrepresented on the university's high-level, strategic policy committees, but overrepresented on staff or student welfare committees. One respondent lamented that, "girly bits of jobs, e.g., dealing with troubled students, were jobs for someone with plenty of tissues in their bag." The Luton women's forum recommended that the mechanisms for selecting committee members ought to be more open and accountable and that appointment to committees should be for a fixed term with rolling replacements.

One delegate voiced the concern that "there is a bit of tokenism on committees--selection should be seen to be on merit." There was a pause for laughter when another delegate told the story of the female Labour MP who, when questioned whether positive selection of women MPs would result in "the right calibre of women" coming forward, replied simply, "How bad do they have to be?"

One group of scientists which has little involvement on university committees, regardless of whether they are male or female, is contract research staff (CRS). Their lot was the focus of the project conducted by Yvonne Cassidy and Marion Larson at Edinburgh University. While there was no evidence of overt discriminatory practices, women were disadvantaged as a result of their role as primary care giver. However, the apparent great divide between men's work and women's work appears to operate at this level too. Women were slightly more likely to have undertaken additional teaching and demonstrating than men, but were less likely to have been involved in reviewing, supervising, and paid consultancy work. The project team has made a number of recommendations to the university. It should commit extra resources to providing careers advice and mentoring to CRS, liaise with the Scottish Executive to develop a career structure for CRS, ensure pension contributions are maintained during gaps between contracts, and undertake a review of committee structures.

Finally, Dr Rona Ramsay described the work of the St Andrews Local Academic Women's Network (LAWN), one of five LAWNs set up through the Athena 2000 Development Programme. The network has tried to raise the profile of women scientists by increasing the numbers invited to speak at local seminars. Social gatherings after the seminars allowed women scientists to meet their male colleagues and talk to them about their research. LAWN is planning to expand the concept to send promising postdoctoral researchers and the most junior academics to participate in other universities' seminar programmes.

The grass still seems to be a little greener on the male side of the gender fence, but women in SET are growing in number and seem finally to be taking root in more influential positions. Raising awareness of discrimination through the continuing work of Athena is giving hope to the new generation of budding women scientists.

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