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More Action Needed to Retain Women in Science

She Figures

A report released by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee of the U.K. Parliament on Thursday calls on universities and the government to review academic career paths and find ways to level the playing field for women.

The report is based on more than 90 written submissions and 13 oral statements from members of the U.K. academic community, diversity-promoting organizations, universities, funding bodies, and the government. Its main message is that despite many years of effort to redress science's gender balance, progress has been slow: Women constitute 44.5% of all academic staff in the United Kingdom, but  only 20.5% of professors are women (17% in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—fields).

"Some of my best researchers work until 5 p.m. every day, but their focus and commitment ensures that they are as productive as those who work through the night." —Carol Robinson

The report emphasizes the competitiveness and lack of security in the current scientific career path. "While competitiveness for jobs is beneficial for science, careers should not be constructed in such a way that talented women are deterred from remaining and progressing in STEM," the authors of the report write.

The Science and Technology Committee identified short-term contracts as one of the current system's most serious problems. "Early academic STEM careers are characterised by short term contracts, which are a barrier to job security and continuity of employment rights. This career stage coincides with the time when many women are considering starting families, and because women tend to be primary carers, they are more likely than men to end their STEM career at this stage," the authors write.

The authors call on the United Kingdom's universities, funding bodies, and government to offer more stable, longer-term positions for postdoctoral researchers; there's even a reference to "permanent" postdoc positions. Such changes would benefit all postdoctoral scientists, male and female—but, the report says, "A move towards longer-term employment of academic researchers should encourage maternity provisions in line with other employment sectors." They also noted the suggested provision of 3 months of bridging funding to give postdocs more time to apply for jobs.

One source of insecurity is the frequent need for scientists to relocate. But often, the authors note, relocation isn't necessary for collaboration. They recommend that funding bodies remove relocation from their eligibility criteria for fellowships and promote collaboration via financial support for shorter visits.

Most notable, perhaps, is the report's criticism of the culture of "unreasonably long working hours" in science. "All HEIs [higher education institutions] should review the working hours of their academic staff and the management of research groups to ensure that practices are in keeping with the needs of those employees with caring responsibilities," the report says. "Line managers who pressure staff into working unreasonably long working hours should be held to account by their employer. In addition, every academic researcher should have a named contact within the HEI’s human resources team to whom they can confidentially direct queries." While acknowledging that not all science can be done within regular working hours, the report recommends that research departments set core working hours during which all key meetings should take place. The authors also advise wider use of part-time fellowships and academic positions, and they call for more emphasis on role models—male and female—that demonstrate how to balance a successful career with family responsibilities.

The report encourages more mentoring and the provision of career advice to all researchers—women in particular. Importantly, such career advice should also encompass careers beyond academia, the authors say. Finally, the report recommends compulsory diversity and equality training for all principal investigators, supervisors, and scientists sitting on committees for recruitment, promotion, and grant review.

Carol Robinson

Carol Robinson

Courtesy of Carol Robinson

Courtesy of Carol Robinson
Carol Robinson


Carol Robinson, a chemist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who returned to science following a prolonged career break to raise three children and has since received many honors for her research into the 3D structure of proteins, welcomes the recommendations. Career breaks in particular "are very poorly taken up, primarily because many women assume that it will not be possible to have a re-start," she writes in an email to Science Careers. "As someone who has benefitted from this, I can honestly say that my eight-year career break was well accepted at every level and always factored in when considering promotions."

Robinson strongly agrees with the report's challenge to science's culture of long working hours. "Some of my best researchers work until 5 p.m. every day, but their focus and commitment ensures that they are as productive as those who work through the night," she writes. "The culture in some departments can be very competitive with the 'every man/women for themselves' mentality, which often means that colleagues' successes are not celebrated but resented. This atmosphere, together with the long-hours culture, are, I believe, two major obstacles to retention of women in STEM subjects."

CREDIT: Ute Vogel/Creative Commons

CREDIT: Ute Vogel/Creative Commons
Curt Rice

Curt Rice, a linguist at the University of Tromsø in Norway and the Leader of Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance in Research, also welcomes the report but expresses concern about its mild tone; the tone makes it unlikely that the recommendations will be implemented, he writes in an email to Science Careers. He commends the report's emphasis on advising on nonacademic careers: "I think young women researchers — but men, too — would benefit if professors could be a little less snobby about assuming that academia should be the default first choice for all their students."

While the recommendation to highlight role models is, "in principal, sound," Robinson warns that sometimes this can also have a negative effect. Established female role models should be careful not to seem so driven that they put off younger colleagues, she says. "I believe that the onus is on women who hold top positions, and have family responsibilities, to celebrate the work–life balance it enables; be vocal about the positive benefits, such as the freedom to attend school events; take your family to international meetings; and [be] supportive of younger colleagues. Perhaps only then we might bring about some small change in a culture which hitherto has been resilient to change."