Universities have long been urged to do more to support women in science, but now the Department of Health is forcing the issue by withholding funding from those that do not have accreditation, proving that they take the issue of gender imbalance seriously.
Dame Sally Davies, director general of research and development and chief scientific adviser for the Department of Health/NHS, has announced that the National Institute for Health Research will no longer shortlist any NHS/university partnership for Biomedical Research Centre and Biomedical Research Unit funding unless the academic institution holds at least a silver award from the Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science.
The scheme was set up to recognise universities that promote and support the careers of women in science, and awards accreditation at three levels: bronze, silver and gold.
With the funding period for both research bodies set at five years, the institute believes universities have time to achieve accreditation before the next round opens.
Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and chair of both the Cambridge Gender Equality Group and the Athena Forum for Women in Science, said the decision had the potential to catalyse real change.
"I think it is going to transform the landscape because universities will know that medical schools have got to work towards this," she told Times Higher Education.
"For the first time there is a real pressure - if you don't get this award you will be excluded from this funding competition. I think it will really make a big difference and it would be nice to see other funders follow suit."
The "leaky pipeline", whereby women leave education or careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields often never to return, is highlighted by the increasing gender imbalance as women climb the academic career ladder.
Latest figures from the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET (UKRC) show that in 2007-08 women accounted for 33.2 per cent of undergraduates and 34 per cent of graduates in STEM subjects. However, these numbers fell to 26.1 per cent for full-time lecturers, and to only 9.3 per cent for full-time professors.
Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation, a report published this month by the US Department of Commerce, also offers discouraging news, with only 26 per cent of US women with STEM degrees working in STEM occupations, compared with 40 per cent of their male counterparts.
For women finishing their PhDs and looking up the academic ladder, the lack of women at the top cannot help but raise questions.
"When you are making the decision about whether to stay in academia you look upwards and you think, 'There aren't many women, why is that?'," said Emily Flashman, winner of one of the four prestigious 2011 L'Oréal-Unesco Fellowships for Women in Science, and Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow in the department of chemistry at the University of Oxford.
"I think the gender balance will change over time, but it is a gradual process. There are more women staying in science, and in 10 or 20 years' time there will be more and more," she added.
More prominent role models within departments is something that the Athena SWAN charter aims to promote.
Marion Brooks-Bartlett, a PhD student at University College London, said: "Especially in my field, in programming and physical chemistry, there are many more men than women. It would be really good to see a lot more women coming out for science."
The Department of Health announcement has raised hopes that universities will increase their efforts to address the common concern among young researchers about the difficulties of balancing family life with the pressure of academia.
Ms Brooks-Bartlett said: "It's a really huge factor in the decision of whether to stay in academia. I felt quite stunned when I heard about women in research who had children because I didn't know how they were juggling science and a family."
Dr Flashman added: "I had this quandary - can you have a career in academic science and have a family? Do I want to have a career in science if you can't?
"The most important thing I have learned is that you never feel that it is the right time to have children in this job, but I went on maternity leave while I was still a postdoc and my supervisor was really supportive," she said. "It all worked out fine. For me those two aspects of life - academia and family - have to be treated separately."
By encouraging academic institutions to review their policies in areas such as maternity leave and flexible working, the Athena SWAN charter aims to dispel the notion that science and families do not mix.
"Doing the right thing by women means doing the right thing by people - if you have things like family-friendly policies it will benefit men too," said Professor Donald.
"But it absolutely needs buy-in from the top; you need support from the senior management to make sure that departments are following through and implementing changes."
The issue of maternity leave as a threat to academic careers has been thrown into the spotlight by the research excellence framework, which from 2014 will be used to distribute quality-related research income in the UK.
The draft REF assessment criteria, released last month and due to be finalised at the start of next year, include a proposal that the standard requirement that researchers must submit four research outputs may be reduced by one unit for each period of maternity leave taken, without inducing penalties in the assessment.
Such a measure would bolster the message that having a family should not be detrimental to a researcher's academic record, and that women should not despair about the impact of maternity leave on their career and funding prospects.
Numerous reports, including The Chemistry PhD: The Impact on Women's Retention, published by UKRC and the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2008, have also cited a lack of self-confidence among female students and researchers as exacerbating the leaky pipeline.
To counter this, the Athena SWAN charter encourages universities to set up mentoring systems and support networks, and to offer researchers training to develop their skills and build confidence.
"You don't want to admit that you lack confidence, but talking about it helps," said Dr Flashman. "Knowing that it is perfectly natural to have self-doubts means you think, 'It's OK, other people, other successful people, feel like that too'.
"For me, winning the L'Oreal-Unesco award gave me a lot of confidence because it involved an interview with exceptional academics face to face - the award is a validation that I can do this job."
Dame Athene added: "Universities or departments running assertiveness training or confidence-building classes are very helpful. It isn't just women that suffer from a lack of self-confidence, men feel it too. If postdocs and PhD students received more support, regardless of gender, it would be very beneficial."
The Department of Health announcement will undoubtedly be seen by many as a positive step towards gender equality for researchers in science.
Dr Flashman added: "If a young woman said to me she was thinking about following a career in science, I'd tell her to go for it."
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