'We've gone beyond bottom pinching... but this is worse'

October 18, 2002

Institutionalised sexism discourages many women from a career in science. What's being done about it? asks Helen Hague.

Baroness Greenfield broke the pre-publication purdah surrounding her keenly awaited report into the barriers women face in science with characteristic panache last week. Speaking at the launch of a Good Housekeeping survey into women's attitudes to science, held on her own turf at the Royal Institution, she didn't mince her words. The barriers holding back women in science led to "a criminal waste of talent". And though "thankfully we've gone beyond bottom pinching - in some ways, the latest form of discrimination is worse - it's hidden, institutionalised sexism, clearly reflected in the awful statistics".

Greenfield's report, due to be published later this autumn, covers the public and private sectors, industry and academe. Government figures have recently revealed that there are 50,000 female science, engineering and technology graduates not working in the disciplines for which they trained.

Her remarks will no doubt resonate with many women scientists in universities whose careers are languishing in a succession of postdoc fixed-term contracts and for whom a junior lectureship can seem like the Holy Grail. Unless they bail out, as many do, and get more secure well-paid employment elsewhere, or start a family without fear of falling off the radar when it comes to trying to re-establish a career.

Greenfield gave a few broad indications of what the report, soon to land on Patricia Hewitt's desk at the Department of Trade and Industry, will say. It will focus on strategies that deliver a better deal for women and for the knowledge-based economy rather than "attempt to change the male psyche". These include the creation of a national database of female scientists to counter male networking and enable employers - including universities - to recruit more women. She also spoke of the need for "carrots and sticks" to ensure that "every opportunity of harnessing women's talents" is taken - for example, measures to ensure a work-life balance, such as job sharing, backed by recommendations from advisory panels. The emphasis is likely to be on practical steps to help women with children carry on working in science or to resume their career after a break.

Female scientists certainly say that career breaks can hinder their progress, but they add that timing can also be an important factor - having children early in a scientific career can make things more difficult. Gillian Gehring, professor of physics at Sheffield University and one of just 16 female physics professors in the UK, says all the physics academics she knows got "acclaim first and children second". But she adds: "Where women absolutely lose out is if they go part time, drop out for a year or so and think they can come back easily. They can't."

The government has been trying to address such issues for years. The 1990s saw the launch of a plethora of policies and initiatives - including the DTI's Promoting Science Education and Training for Women Unit and the Athena Project, which was given the remit of improving the retention and advancement of women scientists in higher education. Athena is now under the auspices of Universities UK. With women holding just 8.9 per cent of professorships in the sector, Athena itself concludes that "despite these initiatives, women's numerical representation in higher education employment becomes progressively more sparse the higher one goes up the academic ladder".

Joan Mason, founding chairman of the Association of Women in Science and Engineering, which has been promoting networking in the field since 1994, thinks there is still much to be done. "So much talent gets lost, you could weep. When child-rearing years are over, women scientists are often left feeling high and dry. Only too often they get stuck doing technicians' work," she says.

The Daphne Jackson Trust - set up in 1992 in honour of the first female physics professor to be appointed at a UK university - offers a two-year, part-time, paid fellowship for women scientists to retrain, update their skills and learn new techniques. More than 100 have been awarded since the scheme was launched - and it has a 99 per cent success rate in getting women back into science. Greenfield has made clear that it is a model for the future.

Susan Swift, a zoologist and expert in bat behaviour, benefited from a Daphne Jackson fellowship after time out to raise children. Swift, who wrote the first study of bat ecology in Britain, is enthusiastic about what the fellowship has to offer. "It helped me get back in and get a couple of publications in good journals," she says.

Now 49, Swift is happy to work part time at the University of Aberdeen. The fellowship allowed her to update her computer skills and catch up with research techniques.

The Royal Society set up the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships in 1995, and 91 have been awarded since. Men are eligible - four have secured awards - but this year all 11 went to women. The society has also launched the Rosalind Franklin Award, in honour of Franklin's mostly uncredited role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. The £30,000 award, funded by the DTI, is for up-and-coming scientists (men and women) in mid-career.

Lindsay Nicholson, editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping who shared a platform with Greenfield, is one of the many women lost to science. She studied astrophysics at University College London before joining the Mirror Group training scheme. "Tabloid newspapers in the 1980s were hardly known for being female friendly. But compared with science faculties, they seemed like female heaven," she says.

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