Science women aim for the top

March 7, 1997

EIGHTEEN young female scientists at Edinburgh University met their mentors for the first time last week as part of a new initiative to encourage more women to reach senior academic posts in science, engineering and technology.

Only 7 per cent of senior lecturers and 4.7 per cent of professors in Edinburgh's science and engineering faculty are women - a gender disparity that is mirrorred nationwide. As Isabel Turnbull, project coordinator said: "The scheme is about progression rather than access - how do we keep women in science once we have got them there?" The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council-funded mentoring project aims to establish a mechanism to support women research students early in their careers by linking them with senior women who can provide guidance on developing research ideas, seeking funding, teaching and administration as well as on more personal issues women face about family and children.

The pairing up of mentors and mentees, who will meet twice a term for the next academic year, is "mentee driven" according to Turnbull and based first on what mentees ask, then what mentors can offer and thirdly subject area.

Most mentees are PhD students seeking insights into career structure and how to negotiate potential pitfalls. Others are research associates, like Kathryn Newton who said: "The continual need to take short-term contracts means I have drifted through my career. I hope being mentored will help me to focus on what I need to move up the academic scale."

The difficulties of juggling an academic career and family were a common theme among older postdoctoral mentees. Higher up the scale again, Jill Lancaster, a recently appointed lecturer in freshwater biology, said: "Having spent years working towards a lectureship post I now face a vast array of new tasks for which I am not trained and there is no one to turn to for advice."

It is often difficult for these women to ask senior female colleagues in their own department for help. For some mentees, no such women exist. Others, like Lisa Rannford-Cartwright, a postdoctoral researcher, are aware that they may pose a burden. She said: "Making a formal agreement to meet under the scheme avoids all the difficulties of feeling you're imposing on a busy colleague's time."

Linda Gilmore, one of the mentors and a senior lecturer in biochemistry, recognises the potential problems and uses an unusual analogy to explain the mentoring scheme. She described the scheme as resembling "an academic dating agency - where two parties meet because they are both interested in what the other has to say".

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