Science and Technology Committee – Inquiry into Women in STEM careers – 16th October 2013
by Carole Thomas
Earlier this week I attended the first evidence hearing for the UK’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into ‘Women in STEM careers’. This is a special area of interest for us at the John Innes Centre, where we have been reinforcing our commitment to ensure equality for all our staff and students, whichever gender they are by introducing a raft of new family-friendly initiatives. The John Innes Centre is part of a pilot to assess how research institutes outside the university sector can achieve Athena SWAN awards, the national equality programme that recognizes commitment to the advancement and promotion of the careers of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). .
So it was with a large degree of interest that I attended this first evidence hearing. It was held in the Thatcher room at Portcullis house, a room housing a portrait of Margaret Thatcher and a montage featuring words associated with Equality and Diversity on the walls. Quite a different setting from the recent Ada Lovelace Day Women in Science event I attended, which ironically was held in a University Registry Council Chamber whose walls featured artwork of only men.
A male-dominated panel quizzed three witnesses on their experiences in STEM and what it was that they thought was leading to the loss of women from STEM careers. All three witnesses spoke eloquently and identified many of the reasons often quoted for women (and some men) leaving science. These ranged from lack of job security associated with short fixed term contracts, the pyramid structure of the STEM careers, lack of flexible working, lack of encouragement and support, no role models and poor childcare provision.
The session started with questions related to why the witnesses chose science as a career. Their inspiration came from several sources; relatives or parents, teachers and the opportunity to do a lab project whilst an undergraduate.
As the discussion progressed it was acknowledged that different STEM subjects lose women at different stages of the pipeline. In the case of Physics, for instance, a drop off in numbers occurs after A-level.
This phenomenon is something that became worryingly apparent to me at a talk that I gave as part of the International Day of the Girl to schoolgirls aged between 14 and 16. When asked why they thought there were fewer women Professors, the girls came up with something that I wasn’t expecting. Rather than citing work-life balance issues they all said categorically that science was ‘boring and unexciting’. It is important that science to young people is invigorating to both genders and keeps them interested and inspired. This is essential if we are to have enough women entering the STEM career pipeline in sufficient numbers to address the gender imbalance that we see in senior grades. At JIC, we support teachers and students via a wide a range of initiatives and engagement activities such as the Year 10 Science Camp, Microscopy visit days and our Inside Science programme for gifted and talented students. We are also part of the Teacher Science Network, and many of our scientists have close links with schools helping teachers design and run practical lessons.
Issues around short-term contracts featured prominently in the evidence discussion. One of the points was how important it is for a postdoc to have a track record in attracting funding in the form of grants and Fellowships e.g. from the European Molecular Microbiology Organization (EMBO) or Marie Curie.
These, in turn, require the postdoctoral scientist to be mobile and take their fellowship to different institutions and in some cases to different countries. The advantages of these types of fellowships include promoting collaborations and building networks important for career advancement. The short term nature and the uncertainty of where the next tranche of funding is coming from impacts both genders, but tends to have a higher impact on women as this tends to be the stage in their life when they may be thinking about having a family.
The impact of career breaks on a postdoctoral scientist’s CV was also talked about at length. The concern that a gap in publications that extends beyond the time taken for maternity leave is detrimental to career progression was aired; this is a particular problem for short term fellowships. There are several organisations with initiatives aimed at helping returners from career breaks to re-establish their research careers eg Ernest Rutherford Returners Fellowship, Welcome Trust Career Re-entry Fellowship, Daphne Jackson Trust and the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship JIC has hosted Daphne Jackson Fellowships and has a current Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship placement. Perhaps there is a need for more of these types of initiatives and larger numbers of fellowships. There was a view that the culture needs to change to overcome the prejudice in the community against people who have had a career break. CVs need to be judged on quality of output taking into consideration career breaks, this is something that is actively promoted at JIC.
The culture change required around flexible working was considered. Flexible working policies are not enough, it is vital that policies are embedded and that where possible flexible working, including job sharing, is encouraged to improve work-life balance. A move away from presenteeism (regardless of productivity) and promotion of flexible working and parental leave for both genders is required. This along with the cultural belief that women are the main careers of both children and elderly relatives need to be addressed.
Confidence was another area that was discussed. Women tend to be less confident than men and will only apply for jobs or promotion if they fit the criteria, whereas generally men are prepared to ‘give it a go’. At JIC we are actively encouraging women to apply for Project Leader and Fellowship positions and the evidence shows that although female application rates are lower they tend to be more successful at winning the positions.
There is a strong need for realistic role models for students and early career scientists to relate to at all levels in science. Often may women don’t realize that they are role models, just because they haven’t reached the most senior levels doesn’t mean they have failed! An awareness of alternative careers that use the value skills learnt being a bench scientist needs to be grown.
Science has a competitive culture which drives up standards. Institutions need to ensure that women are equipped with the tools, skills and confidence and in an environment that enables them to compete on a level playing field with their male counterparts.
The Science and Technology Committee is right to look at what it calls the ‘leaky pipeline’ in the career path of women scientists. The evidence this week was well considered and should help to achieve equality for all scientists irrespective of gender.
Carole Thomas is Head of Directorate at the John Innes Centre, an international centre of excellence in plant and microbial research in Norwich, England.