'Macho' culture drives women out of the labs

July 24, 2008

A "macho" culture in university laboratories is driving women out of the profession, a forthcoming report will warn.

Some 6 per cent of chemistry professors are women, despite the UK having a 47 per cent female graduate population.

"The attrition after PhD is enormous," said Annette Williams, director of the UK Resource Centre, which carried out the study with the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The report, out later in summer, will show that smaller proportions of female bioscience researchers leave at the postdoctoral stage than is the case in chemistry.

"We don't know what the bioscientists are doing that is different," Ms Williams said. But the research shows that women are leaving chemistry because of isolation in the research group, discomfort in a competitive environment and poor attitudes among supervisors.

A study published in The EMBO Journal (the publication of the European Molecular Biology Organisation) this month concluded that "female scientists are not able to reach higher positions in science because they are less determined to fight for their careers, or to adopt more competitive behaviour, which they consider to be a typical characteristic of the male gender ... we need to give more importance to the values that motivate women's research careers, such as curiosity and collaboration".

Jacqueline Akhavan, head of the Centre for Defence Chemistry at Cranfield University, said: "It is a female problem as well as a chemistry problem. Women tend not to blow their own trumpets and chemistry is very competitive."

Not all female chemists would like to be so described - as Professor Akhavan points out, Margaret Thatcher was one.

Helen Fielding, professor of chemistry at University College London, told Chemistry World that she never considered a research career when she was a PhD student. "But it made a big difference to me that my supervisor was very encouraging."


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