Research intelligence - Juno and Athena rise up

Awards that recognise efforts to reform gender inequality in science are making a difference. Paul Jump reports

November 11, 2010

Flight paths: since having a baby, Dora Biro said she understood ‘for the first time’ why women drop out of science

It is not a new observation that science becomes increasingly dominated by men the higher up the seniority scale you look.

A recent survey of more than 1,300 US scientists on behalf the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the cosmetics company L’Oreal found that women leave science at almost twice the rate of men.

Nor are the reasons any great mystery. The survey highlighted the usual problems, including the lack of female mentors and issues around work-life balance and raising children.

Nearly three-quarters of female scientists said they had sacrificed their personal goals to achieve professional goals, borne out by the fact that they were significantly less likely than men to be married or to have children.

For the past 12 years, the L’Oréal-Unesco “For Women in Science” programme has been making grants to female postdoctoral researchers that can be spent on indirect research costs, such as childcare. One of this year’s winners, Dora Biro, a zoologist at the University of Oxford, will use some of her award to fund travel to and from Brussels, where her husband and family live.

Dr Biro said she had never encountered active discrimination but, since having a baby, understood “for the first time” why women drop out of science.

“I find it hard to reconcile family and work commitments,” she admitted. “We live in a progressive society and I don’t feel pressure, but I do feel I can’t just leave my child to a carer.”

So what is to be done? One approach that appears to be gaining momentum is the giving of awards that recognise institutional efforts to reduce inequality.

Two examples are Project Juno, established by the UK’s Institute of Physics in 2007, and the Athena Swan awards, which were set up five years ago by UK higher education’s Equality Challenge Unit.

Universities are expected to attain a “bronze” award within three years of signing up to the Athena Swan charter, meaning that they have identified problem areas and possible remedies.

The silver stage involves putting plans into action, and gold requires sustained good practice. Of the 50 universities that have signed up so far, none has silver or gold awards, but among departments, there are 16 silver and one gold award holders.

The last is the University of York’s chemistry department, which boasts no drop-off in the proportion of women at senior levels compared with junior levels.

The department’s head, Paul Walton, said awards are “powerful tools” for helping departments think through issues around gender equality, but he is not sure they can motivate behavioural change by themselves.

He said other departments were often put off from trying to emulate his achievement when he told them it would take a decade of sustained focus on eliminating the “little things that don’t appear important but accumulate to create abiding gender inequality”.

Such measures include encouraging teamwork, giving academics the right to move between full-time and part-time work, and scheduling meetings within core work hours and running them in ways that encourage female participation.

Professor Walton also admitted that the changes instituted had been “heckled” from both within and outside his department.

“From within, some say it demeans women to give them an easy track, and from outside, some say: ‘This is positive discrimination: what is the idiot doing?’ Positive discrimination is illegal, but this is positive action, which is about creating different routes through a structure that you don’t have to be a woman to take.”

Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and chair of the Athena Forum, said extending research contracts for the duration of maternity leave and taking maternity breaks into account when assessing research productivity would also help women advance.

“I still have a sense that having a baby is a big career risk and it should not be,” Professor Donald said.

She noted that the Athena Swan awards had had a record number of applications this year and were reaching a “critical mass”, whereby internal pressure for reform would grow within departments that did not have one. As Cambridge’s diversity champion, she said she would be taking her department’s silver award to others and asking why they didn’t have one.

John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors, said there was no exact equivalent of Athena Swan in the US, but several similar programmes concerned with advancing women and creating a better work-life balance had been launched in the past decade.

“I hope that this heightened attention is leading to real progress. But we have been working on these issues for decades and it’s hard to not get discouraged,” he said.

Nor is Professor Walton convinced that institutions are finally “putting their backs into it”.

“Some studies say we won’t have complete gender parity until 2200. It is unforgivable, but sometimes you need the old farts to leave and take their prejudices with them,” he said.

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