Young girls should not be encouraged to go into science until universities can provide a proper career structure for female scientists, a debate at Oxford University heard last week.
Panellists discussing the future of women and minority groups in science at a meeting organised by the Association of Women in Science and Engineering and the plant sciences department at Oxford agreed that much more needed to be done to help women up the academic career ladder.
Autumn Rowan-Hull, who is researching at Oxford with funding from the Daphne Jackson Trust, a charity that helps women back into science after time out to have a family, told the meeting that if she had a daughter she would not advise her to become a scientist.
She said: "Universities are focusing on getting young girls into science, but they need to fix this before they start telling girls it is an attractive career."
Dr Rowan-Hull, who is nearing the end of her two-year fellowship at the department of anatomy and human genetics at Oxford, bemoaned the lack of opportunities available for women with families.
She told The Times Higher that two past fellows of the trust were working unpaid in other UK universities.
She said: "What I didn't realise when I started the fellowship was that there was no long-term support. I want to continue working flexible hours, and I'm competing with people who haven't had time off and can work full time. There is little incentive to employ women part time.
"There is nothing that beats the stimulation [science] provides for the mind, but you need a career structure, too, and that is what wears you down."
A spokeswoman for the Daphne Jackson Trust said that 95 per cent of its fellows managed to find work in science after completing their fellowship.
But she agreed that universities and companies needed to pay more attention to part-time work.
She added: "Like other women with families, the fellows usually can't relocate, whereas if you are single or don't have children, you are usually more able to move. That obviously causes anxiety because it limits their options."
Judith Finch, a diversity and equal opportunities officer at Oxford, told delegates at the meeting that the university was having considerable success with a new career development fellowship scheme.
The scheme awards funding to bridge the gap between employment on a short-term research contract and becoming a permanent member of staff Ñ a transition that is acknowledged to be particularly difficult for women.
A spokesperson for Oxford said: "It is generally recognised across the sector that some aspects of the structure of an academic career can serve as an unintended deterrent to the advancement of women."