MPs want more to be done to help women in science

Chair of Commons committee wants universities to ‘pull their socks up’ and tackle gender inequality

February 6, 2014

Some universities are failing to adequately address the problem of gender inequality in science and need to “pull their socks up”, according to the MP who has led an inquiry into the issue.

Andrew Miller, chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee – whose report Women in Scientific Careers was published on 6 February – said there was an “awful lot more that could be done” to support women in academic careers.

He said that some employers in other sectors had been much more active in working to reduce and dismantle the hurdles that women face.

Just 17 per cent of all professors working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are women, according to the report, which criticises “biases and working practices” that “result in systematic and cumulative discrimination against women throughout STEM study and academic careers”.

It adds that universities need to take more action to ensure that women can remain in academia while having a family and are not lost from the “leaky pipeline” – which describes the way that women drop out at various career points.

Mr Miller, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, told Times Higher Education that there was a tendency in the sector “to just continue in the way that things have been done”. Cracking this problem required “very firm attention by the leaderships of our universities and research councils”, he added.

To help support women early in their careers, the committee recommends that the government and universities boost the number of longer-term positions for postdoctoral researchers.

After completing a PhD, researchers undertake a series of short-term contracts in different laboratories at a time when many people may be trying to secure a mortgage and start a family. This “disproportionally deters” women from continuing careers in academia, according to the report.

The lack of successful female role models with children in science may also create the impression that it is not possible to have a family and to work as a researcher.

On top of this, many of the metrics that are used to measure success in science and are considered in promotion decisions, such as grant income and publication output, discriminate against women, the committee heard.

The committee found that women are more likely than men to take on teaching, pastoral and outreach activities. These are not recognised under the existing reward system, although they should be, the committee argued.

All public research funders should require academics applying for and receiving grants to demonstrate how they are improving equality, the report adds.

Universities should also give staff training to help them recognise unconscious bias so that women get a fair chance at recruitment and promotion.

“Scientists are susceptible to the same unconscious gender biases as the rest of the population, and it is unfortunate that some are unwilling to accept this simply because their professional research requires them to be objective,” the report says.

To get to grips with the problems, the sector should use exit interviews or questionnaires to collect information from those leaving. The data should also be published so that they can inform the work of those striving to improve diversity, the report says.

holly.else@tsleducation.com

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