Flaws of motion

May 15, 1998

Have women made such little headway in science because they are incapable or because men are biased? Julia Hinde found that an EU conference on the dismal job prospectsfaced by female scientists had little doubt where the blame lies

Despite years of informal debate and numerous localised attempts to counter the lack of women, the figures for European women at the top of science continue to make grim reading.

In Britain, around 40 per cent of science undergraduates are now women (only 24 per cent in the physical sciences), but only 3 per cent of science professors are female. In Germany four in ten science undergraduates are female, but only 4.8 per cent of professors. Waiting for women to filter naturally through to the top ranks of scientific academia, as has often been suggested, does not appear to be producing results at any pace. The battle to get women into science in the first place appears to be making headway, but women are still a long way from an equal footing in the higher ranks among the science professors, the decision-makers and the leaders.

A European Commission conference addressed these issues in 1993. A much larger conference five years on revealed some improvements - more women on national and selected European science decision-making committees, more women doing undergraduate science degrees - but for the most part women remain marginal in science; and the higher up the ladder you go, the fewer women you find. The black hole that consumes female scientists after their PhD still remains.

A female Israeli delegate told last month's 400-strong European Commission/Parliament conference on women and science, that when it comes to women in academic science: "At the beginning there is an iron gate, then a sticky floor; at the top a glass ceiling and in between a hurdle race." And the personal testimonies of women scientists at the conference bore her out.

The statistics are indeed alarming, and the under-representation of women in science they reveal is "simply appalling", the conference heard. Figures are not yet collated on a Europe-wide basis, but nationally the stories seem similar. In Ireland just 4 per cent of all professors are women, in the Netherlands it is just 4.6 per cent, 5.1 per cent in Germany and little better in Switzerland, Denmark or Belgium. In the UK the figure is 7.3 per cent, but only 3 per cent for science subjects, while lower down the hierarchy women make up 16 per cent of senior lecturers and 31 per cent of lecturers. Just 3 per cent of Royal Society fellows are female.

The picture in Southern Europe is different. In Italy and Spain, 10 per cent of professors are female, but this still compares unfavourably with the United States where the figure is closer to 18 per cent. Moreover, these figures apply purely to academia. Statistics do not exist for the percentage of women scientists in the highest ranks of industry.

So why do so very few women make it to the top of science? Lack of child care, difficulties in returning after time out with children and family responsibilities, say many, are significant, but they are not the only reason for the black hole, nor, they argue, are women less innovative, motivated, able or "scientific" than men.

Anecdotal evidence of "unspoken" bias, of women not being taken seriously, of facing negative effects purely because they are woman, and of problems when compared directly with male colleagues for promotion are commonplace, the conference heard, even at the end of the 1990s.

A paper in Nature last year by Swedish scientists Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold clearly highlighted the extent of the bias faced by some women scientists. The pair showed that women had to be 2.6 times more productive than their male counterparts to win grants from the Swedish Medical Research Council. A systematic bias appeared to exist among some of the mostly male Swedish scientific elite - a not dissimilar elite to that which awards the science Nobel prizes, which have only 11 female winners against several hundred men.

For social scientist Hilary Rose, such research highlights that the lack of women in the upper echelons of science is due to men, not women. "It is a system where men give each other prizes," she says.

Similar research into awards undertaken in Denmark has shown that the Swedish Medical Research Council may not be alone (see box) in its bias, while in the UK, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust's own investigations of their grant systems, though showing no bias in the awarding of grants, show the percentage of women applying for grants to be disproportionately low.

Rose suggests: "We should be asking why women are not applying for these grants. I think you don't apply for things you know you are not going to get."

Others suggest the low female application rate may be more to do with women's lack of confidence, as well as women often not being in a position to apply for such grants - perhaps by being on fixed-term contracts that preclude them. Additionally, women may find themselves spending more time than men on other university activities such as teaching, which are often less highly rewarded.

For Rose the blame for the small number of women in the top ranks of science lies firmly with men, historically the gatekeepers of science, who she says still for the most part govern the rules and decide science's organisation, priorities and promotions. "All the powerful positions are held, and have been historically held, by men," she explains. "People can see talent in people who look like themselves. Like young people need role models, older successful people look back and see talent in people who are like they were. Whatever the desired cultural traits are, women do not have them. We have to persuade science's gatekeepers that it is possible to be 'not man' and brilliant. Men have to realise this discrimination against women."

Rose, like others, dismisses notions that women's lack of success may be related to inability or lack of innovation. She points to information technology research. In its earliest days in the 1970s, as with many emerging sciences, it was full of women, but now it is dominated by the male networks that she believes confine women to the lower levels.

"You hardly find women now that it has become a big subject. Now it is a question of power and networks there too. Where innovation is, you find women. But here the pay and career structure are uncertain," says Rose.

Others suggest that the organisation of scientific practice has been historically designed by men and as such is more suited to "accepted" male characteristics and lifestyles than females'.

Dominique Weis, professor in the department of geology and earth sciences at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, told the meeting: "Women can bring perspectives to science that are different from those of men. The majority of women seem to be less driven in the search for power and status than men, and have a deeper respect for differences. This also implies that they are generally more open to collaborations and sharing." Yet collaboration, as opposed to drive for promotion and power, may not always be valued by male-dominated selection committees.

Similarly the notion that to progress as a scientist you must spend time abroad causes problems for some women. Leena Peltonen, of the University of Helsinki, Finland, says the need to go overseas obstructed the careers of a proportion of women who felt unable to uproot partners from jobs in Finnish firms and children from school.

Haguette Delavault, a mathematics professor from Paris, points to the widely held myth that to do maths you have to be under 35. "This means you are writing off women," she said. "Between 25 and 35 years, women may have other priorities. But after that they are very capable of having very good careers." Women with children may be temporarily less productive than male counterparts, the meeting heard, but research suggests quite quickly women with children are found to be similarly, if not more, productive than childless female colleagues.

So what can be done to give women an equal place in science and to encourage them to stay and progress to the highest levels?

There is agreement that statistics need to be properly and independently collated to define the extent of the problem. These will enable goals for change to be set and the progress of different initiatives to be compared. As Rose says: "If you want policy, you have to have concentrate statistics. No statistics, no problem, no policy."

The European Commission proposed at last month's meeting the establishment of a European Observatory to collate statistics on the position of women in science and to sensitise politicians and members of the scientific community to this equal opportunities issue.

The commission stopped short of proposing intervention by the observatory, but according to many this is a step in the right direction.

Other scientists would welcome better family and child-friendly policies and provision, as well as acknowledgement of a woman's academic age as opposed to her chronological age when she applies for posts and grants. Better help in returning after time out for a family is also needed.

Significantly improved female representation on university, national and European grant-awarding bodies and on science policy committees is seen as particularly important, enabling a female perspective to be included and possibly a change of emphasis to benefit women.

Perhaps one should bear in mind advice from Professor Peltonen, who told the conference that even at the end of the 20th century, the most important individual decision any female makes through her career is whom she marries. If women are to progress, supportive partners willing to take responsibility for half the child care are needed, she said.

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