Analysis: Science and the family don't mix

October 12, 2001

Statistics show an alarming number of female scientists remain single and childless.


"Are we being irresponsible in encouraging girls and women to enter science?"

This was a question posed at a conference of female scientists by Judith Glover, reader in social policy at the school of sociology and social policy at the University of Surrey Roehampton.

The largely female audience did not immediately shout her down. Instead there was real concern to address the many issues that make it difficult for women to remain in and get to the top in science.

An increasing body of statistics, discussed at the seminar, show that while more women are studying science at undergraduate level, few rise to the top of the academic tree and those who do often remain unmarried or childless.

The Athena Project is a UK-wide initiative whose aim is the advancement of women in science, engineering and technology (SET) in higher education. Dr Glover said: "There is a growing body of research that shows qualified women exiting more readily than men from a scientific career. We need to find out why. Too often women have been criticised for not having the enthusiasm, qualifications and skills necessary to get on in science. The institutions of science should, by contrast, be the object of concern and hence inquiry."

Louisa Blackwell, data quality manager at the Office for National Statistics, is one of the researchers on the Institute of Education's "Women's Scientific Lives Project". It is a longitudinal survey that has looked at census data for 1971 to 1991 and found evidence that women serious about academic careers in certain SET subjects tend to remain unmarried and childless.

The analysis found that more than 40 per cent of women with technology degrees between the age of 25 and 40 were unmarried, compared with 16 per cent of non-graduates. For women who graduated in the natural sciences it was 32 per cent. By the age of 49, more than 37 per cent of women in technology were childless against 24 per cent of those in the traditionally more family-friendly areas of health or teaching.

"I was alarmed at the press coverage this received," Dr Blackwell said. One newspaper warned female school-leavers to choose wisely if they wanted to avoid the fate of Bridget Jones.

"It is very important that this research should not be used to put women off science, rather it should do something about the hurdles women face," she said.

"Fertility is already below replacement level in the UK, and research emerging from the European Union shows that highly educated women born in the 1960s are deferring childbirth. Postponed child-bearing often never happens. Do we really want a society in which being a scientist and being a mother are seen as incompatible?" The authors of the study argued for more research on why women make the choices they do. "Women with degrees in SET, particularly the subjects where the representation of women is low, like mathematics, physics - engineering and technology - are exceptional," it said.

"It is plausible that they are more likely than other graduates to adjust their fertility behaviour rather than their career aspirations when confronted with employment practices that are incompatible with family life."

Dame Julia Higgins, professor of polymer science in the department of chemical engineering at Imperial and chair of Athena, warned: "Many women may be choosing not to have children and may well find their scientific lives extremely fulfilling. We have to be clear about cause and effect here."

Valerie Snewin, scientific programme officer at the Wellcome Trust, argued that one answer is to develop initiatives that enable women - and men - to have more flexible careers.

The Wellcome Trust is keen to publicise its Research Career Re-Entry Fellowship Scheme as one such initiative. It was set up to enable high-quality scientists with an established track record to re-enter research after a career break.

Dr Snewin said: "Some scientists choose to spend some years away from the lab. The challenges of breaking back into research cross the gender divide and the scheme is open to both men and women who have normally had a career break of at least two years."

Dr Glover said: "If we devise non-traditional career paths in science that allow greater flexibility for men and women, those that take breaks will, hopefully, not be stigmatised as less serious about their careers. At the moment the world of science is seen as inhospitable to women and those that survive in it are unusual. It needs to be opened up."

Women's participation in science

By 1991 there were more than four times as many SET-qualified women graduates among those born around 1960 than in the group born around 1930. But men born around 1960 were more than twice as likely to have SET qualifications as women of the same age.

The representation of women varied in different subjects. Health-related science was the more gender-balanced, while technology subjects were the most male dominated (although in recent years numbers have been increasing rapidly here, they have done so from a very small base). Women in later cohorts were as under-represented in physics as the earlier cohorts had been, and feminisation rates in mathematics and the natural sciences were moderate.

  • In 1998-99, women gained a third of doctorates in science, engineering and technology. Slightly more than half of all biological science PhDs were gained by women, but women obtained a smaller proportion of doctorates in all the other major scientific groups.
  • At senior lecturer/ researcher level, the position of women improved only marginally between 1995-96 and 1998-99. In biology, mathematical and physical sciences, women made up just 11 per cent of senior lecturers in 1998-99 compared with 8 per cent in 1995-96. In engineering and technology, they made up 6 per cent in 1998-99 compared with 4 per cent three years earlier.
  • At professorial level 3 per cent of professors in engineering and technology were women in 1998-99 and 4 per cent in biology, mathematics and physical sciences.
  • Between 1901-1998, only 11 women won a Nobel prize in science out of 457 winners.

Sources: Institute of Education/Women Scientists in Higher Education from Athena


A woman's place is in the laboratory

Three successful women scientists talk about what makes their work exciting, how they got to their current positions, and how to improve the position of women in the sciences.

'I do think things are getting harder for women'

Dame Julia Higgins is professor of polymer science in the department of chemical engineering at Imperial College, London.

"The field of polymer science is new and exciting and I have been in the right place at the right time. Neutron scattering techniques have allowed us to 'see' what polymers do. I am not an inventor, I am interested in understanding what polymeric material does, how it behaves," she said.

Dame Julia does not have children. "I have been very lucky in having the right husband. Time and time again women who are successful in science have said this to me - you need both a passion for your subject and the right husband.

"I do think things are getting more difficult for women. Our younger staff are burdened by mortgages and seem to spend an awful lot of time doing up houses that are a long way away."

She also points to the biography of the Nobel prize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin: "She survived by using domestic labour. That is more expensive now."

Dame Julia would like to see better advice for women entering scientific careers and more support networks for women, hence her involvement in Athena.

"I have always found other female colleagues enormously supportive. At the risk of sounding too girly, they make me laugh, and I've always enjoyed that. And I do want to see more flexible career structures. Universities ought to be able to do this. I'm not sure this long-hours culture is helping anyone. We are running faster to stay in the same place."

'You can have children and be a top scientist'

Sarah Randolph is a zoologist, working on the epidemiology of diseases transmitted by ticks and insects. She is the Natural Environment Research Council senior research fellow in the department of zoology, Oxford University, with the honorary university title of reader in parasite ecology.

One of her most exciting pieces of research has been explanations for, and so predictions of, the changing continental distribution of tick-borne encephalitis virus. This was done by relating virus microbiology and tick ecology to satellite imagery of environmental conditions.

She is keen to use satellite imagery more. "The use of satellite imagery to answer epidemiological questions is proving to be so powerful I would like to extend this to directly transmitted infections and non-communicable diseases - even to global patterns of poverty."

Dr Randolph has been married since 1976 and has three children. She took a career break, but worked part-time for five years after the children were born.

"My husband, David Rogers, was already a university lecturer at Oxford when we met, so my freedom to move to jobs outside Oxford has been limited. Instead, I have held a series of independent research fellowships - Leverhulme Trust, Royal Society, Wellcome Trust, and now the Natural Environment Research Council.

"I know my career has suffered from the job insecurity, which impedes a stable research group, and my creativity has suffered from the intense stress. My husband, however, has been my greatest inspiration and I have benefited enormously from our joint work. I would not exchange the rewards of family life for an easier career path, but I do think that demonstrably competent women should be given better opportunities to have the choice of both, as men are.

"You can have children and be a top scientist, as long as you are prepared to do two full-time jobs for about 20 years.

"The increasing culture of endless work is de-humanising and largely counter-productive to good thoughtful science. I am increasingly confident that the quality of my work is equal to any within my field.

"Perhaps it is having children that has convinced me that our most valuable resource is not a pile of barely-read research papers, but the next generation, whose education should be given equal priority with research at universities. I have always devoted a lot of time and effort to teaching, and reaped great rewards from it."

Dr Randolph describes the biggest obstacle to her career as the "two-body problem".

"In Oxford where tenured academic posts are in fixed, very limited supply, and the advancement of the institute is placed above the care and career of the individual, this is a real problem. At the same time, there is no career structure for research posts within the university, with no provision for the over 40-year-olds apart from a handful of professorial positions for the very top few. I was very nearly denied my Wellcome senior fellowship on the grounds that after 20 years of my free services, Oxford University should start to pay my salary itself."

The changes Dr Randolph would most like to see are in attitude away from the "simplistic quantitative yardsticks" by which men and women are judged. "I would like there to be a recognition of the diversity of people's worth, both between individuals and at different stages of each person's life," she said.

"And the recruitment of more influential men to our cause. There is nothing so powerful as a man who really believes in, and acts for, the fair advancement of professional women."

'I would like to see more talented women get through'

Gillian Lovegrove is head of the school of computing and mathematics at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle.

Her original field of research was object-oriented software development and components and architecture. Now, as the head of a department and as chair of the Professors and Heads of Computing for the past two years, her field is the image of computing and what more computing departments can do for the UK economy.

She has achieved her present position despite a nine-year career break to bring up three children. As she returned to work her marriage broke up.

"I felt that the obstacle to my career enhancement was struggling with the label that I could not be serious about career enhancement or be of greater value to the department as I was a single parent with three children - but those were difficult years for me and I had something to prove to myself and to the world. I suspect now that I had a real chip on my shoulder," Professor Lovegrove said.

More than anything, she would like to see women returners given a chance to catch up on their area of expertise and to be regularly re-assessed. "At one time it was true that my family commitments came first, but that changed over time.

"I moved from an old to a new university because in the old university research counted above all else, which meant it would take me years, if ever, to catch up. My department does not have many women and those that there are are survivors. We are atypical in our determination and demands. I would like to see more vulnerable and equally talented women get through."

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