Lab cultures put females off

September 12, 2003

The institutions of science that cause women to avoid the field must change, argues Judith Glover

In common with most other industrialised countries, the UK has a long-standing record of compiling reports, gathering statistics and devising policies focusing on the persistent underrepresentation of women in the natural sciences, engineering and the technologies.

The European Commission estimates that the European Union, in its expanded form, will need at least 400,000 more research and development specialists by 2010 if projected economic growth is to be achieved. The untapped pool of women is expected to be the major ingredient in reaching this figure.

In some fields of the natural sciences and engineering, the number of women has grown slowly but steadily at first-degree level; in others, there is no growth, and in one key area, information technology, there is a decrease.

There is a marked reduction in women's representation at the doctoral and, especially, postdoctoral levels, the point at which the academic career track begins. Women's presence falls radically the higher up the hierarchy one travels, and this is true for all industrialised countries.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from this. First, the issue is not simply one of increasing the number of qualified women. In some of the natural sciences, women represent at least half the total number of undergraduate students, yet retention and advancement in employment is as poor as in fields where women are thinner on the ground.

Second, the universal fact of women's attrition from the natural sciences gives the lie to those who say family-friendly policies are the key. For example, Scandinavian countries, which have childcare in both quantity and quality, face similar problems.

In the UK, we know that fewer women than men translate their science qualifications into science-based employment, and retention rates are low.

Calculations from the UK Labour Force Survey for 2001 show that, at any one time, 50,000 women with science, engineering and technology degrees are not in paid work. Of these, only half can be expected to return to paid work, of whom only a third will take science-based jobs.

To try to retrieve this situation, the UK has developed policy initiatives focusing on increasing the number of women in scientific education and employment. Women have been encouraged, cajoled and repeatedly told that science is a good place to be.

But focusing on women as the source of the "problem" is inadequate and ineffective. We need a new perspective - and this is where the 2002 report for the Department of Trade and Industry by Royal Institution director Susan Greenfield is so significant in its concept of "institutionalised sexism". It shifts the focus from women to science.

It says that far from women lacking human capital, there may be something about science, its culture, practices, norms and values (in sociological terms, its institutions) that holds the key to the "women and science situation".

We must look at the institutions of science. The "blaming women" approach has failed, and this should be recognised. With the help of social scientists, natural scientists need to examine their culture, practices and values - and devise ways to change them.

This would give those who have historically felt themselves to be outsiders in the world of science the chance to be insiders.

Perhaps the current student recruitment crisis in some core science subjects at undergraduate and postgraduate levels will act as a catalyst for such self-examination.

What is certain is that in the context of the European Research Area's ambitious targets, the scientific community should accept the need for a new approach.

Judith Glover is reader in the School of Business and Social Sciences, University of Surrey Roehampton.

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