Bias still rife, say female scientists

October 31, 2003

A strong sense of injustice exists in the UK's science departments, Anna Fazackerley reports

Women scientists in universities feel disadvantaged in terms of salary, promotional prospects and career development, according to a survey.

The Athena Project, an initiative to advance the role of women in academic science, questioned more than 2,000 scientists and engineers of both sexes in UK universities. The survey found women sat on fewer committees and held fewer positions of authority.

Almost 40 per cent of respondents had all-male interview panels for their current posts. And men were significantly more likely than women to have been promoted to a senior lecturer or reader position without having gone through an official application process.

But the survey did not suggest a lack of ambition among female scientists.

Across all academic grades, a higher proportion of women than men wanted to move into senior management.

The results highlighted a strong sense of injustice among female scientists. Almost half of all female respondents said women were disadvantaged in terms of promotion, and 39 per cent felt they were more likely to be paid less and given less access to career development.

Male scientists did not agree with these perceptions. Only 10 per cent felt female scientists were at a financial disadvantage and 16 per cent felt their promotional prospects were unequal.

Women also felt undermined in their departments. More than a fifth of female professors felt senior colleagues were unsupportive. And almost a third of women did not feel that their department celebrated successes in their working lives.

Women below professorial level were more likely than men to feel their research contribution was not valued. And, within the senior lecturer grade, 31 per cent of women said they were not given the opportunity to serve on important departmental committees.

If women left science to raise a family or have a career break, they found it hard to get back in, the survey found.

A third of women who took time out experienced problems finding a job afterwards. Contact with the department, flexible working hours and childcare were most frequently cited as helping a return to the workplace.

The findings will add weight to the Greenfield report on women in science, commissioned by the Department of Trade and Industry and published last November. The report describes an environment of "institutionalised sexism" where women "plough on" despite considerable barriers.

Jan Peters, who deals with women's issues for the Royal Society and who co-authored the Greenfield report, said it had raised awareness of the problems but that more work was needed to maintain that interest and to communicate the message to people within university departments.

Marie-Noelle Barton, director of the Women Into Science and Engineering campaign group, said short-term contracts and lack of recognition were driving women out of science.

She warned that any improvements in universities were happening solely to avoid bad publicity, and that a radical change of attitude was needed.

Ms Barton said: "Every institute should take a real look at what is happening internally - at how many women are leaving and why."

Women swallow their pride to get a foot in the door

Jo Turner , a laboratory scientist at pharmaceutical company Pfizer, believes that universities create far more barriers for women scientists than does industry.
Ms Turner (left) said: "The university academic environment is like an old-boys' network so it is harder to get in and move on."

She started her career in academia, working as part of an ecology research group linked to Kent University. But after a five-year career break to raise her family, she found she was in effect shut out.

"I just couldn't get back in. Employers didn't consider that I might have new skills like prioritising and time-management from being a mother," she said.

Ms Turner had to abandon environmental science and retrain in molecular biology.

She said: "You could see that as a step backwards. You have all the experience and then you go into a new area and start at the bottom."

She is on a short-term contract at Pfizer, although she hopes she will get a permanent position in the future.

Ms Turner said that women needed a boost after a career break.

"There should be some sort of network, even if it's just a phonecall from someone telling you that you can do it," she said.

After returning from Nigeria where she was an established science lecturer, Lesley Onura spent three years trying to get back into science in the UK.

She eventually got a foot in the door with the help of a fellowship at Sussex University, funded by the Daphne Jackson Trust, a charity that helps women return to science. But this meant swallowing her pride and dropping her salary expectations. "I was a senior lecturer in Nigeria but I had to start again as though I'd just done my PhD," she said.

"In the time that men are progressing and moving up the salary scales, a lot of women are taking time out."

Having completed the fellowship, Dr Onura is working in the physics and astronomy department at Sussex but she is on a short-term contract.

"I'm still in a precarious position," she said.

Dr Onura said all the female fellows she knows from the Daphne Jackson scheme are in the same position.

She said: "The trust helped us to get jobs but they might fall apart at any minute. There should be incentives given to universities that give women permanent positions after such fellowships."

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