The lack of female role models and the presence of gender bias have made it difficult to convince young women to dedicate their careers to fields where they will be marginalized and undercompensated - in particular science academia reports The Glass Hammer. How sad that a woman who is a celebrated microbiologist should say about gender discrimination “Amazing, it took me 20 years to know it was even true of me, not just other women. That I believe is called denial. The realization of this strange truth was very, very demoralizing. Sometimes I wanted to quit science… I came to feel like my life had been a failure.” Nancy Hopkins is the Amgen professor of Biology at Massachusetts Institute of technology, and as a graduate student in the 1960’s there were no women science faculty members. During the 1970’s this grew to a lowly 8% but then growth was stagnant for the next 20 years. Professor Hopkins eventually collaborated with two other female colleagues to start a movement informing the dean of science about the “largely invisible and almost certainly unconscious bias against women faculty”. This resulted in the hiring of more top women and the story being picked up by The Boson Globe and New York Times. Despite this success Professor Hopkins advocates further changes in policies to eliminate the unconscious bias against women. She says “It’s the unfounded, unconscious bias itself that needs to change. Men’s and women’s undervaluation of women and women’s undervaluation of themselves is perhaps the very last barrier to overcome.”As a woman in science have you experience gender bias? How did you overcome it? For more on women in science click here.
Recent research by Cornell University reported in The Guardian, suggests that the small numbers of women in senior science posts is more to do with the lack of flexibility in career structures than, as previously thought, discrimination in the job application process. It’s not that women are being discriminated against, it’s more that they are making the choice that this lifestyle won’t suit them. As long term science posts are scarce, in order to keep the job you may need to put in long hours or work abroad, and because of this women are opting out. Effort should be directed at policy changes that reflect the challenges of women interested in a long term career in science. Offering part-time scientific posts for example, would help women keep their career going whilst bringing up a family. Athene Donald, a professor at Cambridge University – who I interviewed for my book Beyond The Boys’ Club – wrote in her own blog about the cultural issues women face in progressing a science career. She says men seem to be more aware of “women in science initiatives” in their department than the women they were designed to help! And unlike women, men are more likely to be appraised as a matter of course and have knowledge of promotion procedures, putting women at a disadvantage. As we working women know our many interests and commitments outside our working life make it impossible for us to sustain a career that offers no time away from our work. Find more on women in science here.
The news that the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology would lose all its government funding (the majority of it’s income) comes as a blow to women relying on it’s support. The centre has the important role of helping to increase the number of women (currently only 12.5%) in the science, engineering and technology workforce. My own beloved Cambridge Awise has been in receipt of UKRC funds and I am distraught that such an inspirational organisation may cease to exist. As Annette Williams, founding director of the centre says “It was a devastating blow, one interpretation is that equality organisations are seen as a boom-time nice-to-have. In times of reduced funding, it is equality activities that suffer.” There has also been huge concern at the prospect that local charities supporting victims of domestic abuse will have to close. In Devon, for example, the county council announced plans to reduce funding for domestic support services by 100%. Up to half of the small charities working to end domestic violence against women have no idea whether they will continue to receive any funding after April. Because of the distressing nature of the issues these charities deal with – sexual abuse and domestic violence – they receive little publicity. Whilst there has been some positive news from the Ministry of Justice announcing £10.5m over the next three years for Rape Crisis Centres, research in 2009 showed that 9 out 10 local authorities did not have a centre offering support for rape victims. The UKRC has been given another year to find new fund raising initiatives. However, as most small groups know the public has historically been more ready to donate to donkey sanctuaries than to women’s organisations!
A fascinating piece of research carried out on college-aged women studying science, appears to confirm that the gender gap in performance is psychological. Carried out by the University of Colorado which asked a randomly selected group of men and women to write affirmations – statements of their values and strengths. The study covered a course where men had historically out performed women. At the end of the 15-week course, the gap between male and female academic performance had narrowed for the women who had taken part in the affirmation exercise, though interestingly there was no similar increase for men. The female students were also given a survey which found the more strongly the women believed in the stereotype of men being better at science, the lower their score. I see this research as a great reason for young women to find a savvy role model or mentor who will boost their confidence and affirm their abilities – read more in my article Female Role Models and Mentors – could be the key to more women in science.
Good news for the future of women in science and roles requiring maths qualifications. In the last year the number of female science and maths teacher applications has risen to the highest level since records began. “Women science teachers could inspire girls to choose science and technology as a viable career option and erase the stereotype of it being a male-dominated industry” says Women in Technology. Frances Wing, head of physics at Nonsuch High School for Girls in Cheam, says "It's great to see that there is a rise in people wanting to teach maths and science given how vital these subjects are in giving future generations the skills they need to succeed." However, the proposal to put forward GCSE exams that differ for boys and girls is not so widely welcomed. The idea is that pupils are provided with the option to play to their different strengths in maths and science subjects. It recommends that girls be given more course work and boys given more exams. The head of education at The National Union of Teachers suggests that this gender ‘stereotyping’ could be dangerous, but interestingly his quote only mentions that ‘there are lots of boys who like the investigative element of coursework as well’ no mention of the girls who do exceedingly well in exams!
In a harsh economic climate, women doctors begin to look poor value for money according to an article in Timesonline. It costs about £250,000 for the NHS to train a surgeon, and many female surgeons once they have children end up either working part-time or failing to get their hospital job back and retraining as GPs. The article goes on to point out that with 57% of graduates from medical schools now being women and 40% of all doctors, we have a possible crisis in store, as many of those women go off on maternity leave, or opt to work part-time. Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, said as much in a report for the National Working Group on Women in Medicine, in which he warned that the country could face “a dramatic shortage of working doctors” in the next few years unless the NHS takes action. On the other side of the argument, this week, Clarissa Fabre takes over as president of the Medical Women’s Federation. Making it possible for women not just to keep entering the medical profession but to stay there will be top of her agenda. Fabre, unsurprisingly, does not see women doctors as a poor return on public investment. She points out that research suggests women doctors are more conscientious than men. They have longer consultations with patients, are less likely to take risks and are less often investigated for malpractice. “When women doctors get pregnant, they often work on longer than they should. The feeling that they don’t want to let the team down is very strong,” she says. “And with the right support it should be possible for women to enter any field of medicine. I know an orthopaedic surgeon with four kids. Women do cope.” There are no easy answers but as Fabre points out “Surgery lists could be made for mornings only. Job shares could be created. What we need is enthusiasm and creative thinking….Patients don’t care whether their doctor is full-time or part-time; what they want is a good doctor.