Students tell of STEM sexism at Bristol

More than half of female students reading science subjects at the University of Bristol said that they have felt uncomfortable at the institution because of their gender

June 13, 2015

A report by Bristol Students’ Union about the experience of female students and staff in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects finds “extremely concerning” levels of everyday sexism, a lack of female role models and an “old boys club” among staff.

One PhD student revealed that she felt she had to have an abortion after falling pregnant because she thought having the child would ruin her doctorate.

The students’ union launched a survey to find out about the experiences of female students and staff in STEM subjects after a 2014 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report looked at the issues. It found that some universities were failing to adequately address the issues of gender inequality in science.

At Bristol, just 6 per cent of engineering professors and 7 per cent of science professors are female, according to the Bristol SU Women in STEM report.

Almost three-quarters of the 273 students polled said that they felt Bristol was a welcoming environment but 53 per cent felt they had to prove themselves to be as capable as their male peers, and 46 per cent said that they had experienced sexist comments.

Many of the students reported lecturers making sexist jokes. One cited a lecturer who made jokes about Rolf Harris and talked about male students getting their female dates drunk. Another reported a lecturer expressing surprise that female students had done better than male ones.

Several students said that their peers suggested they had done well in their studies because they had given sexual favours to staff.

Of the 42 staff that responded to the poll, 80 per cent said they had felt uncomfortable at the university because of their gender and almost two-thirds had experienced sexist comments.

More than 85 per cent of female staff believed it was difficult to balance an academic career with bringing up a family. Almost 60 per cent of staff agreed or strongly agreed that taking maternity leave or requesting flexible working would have a negative impact on their career.

Both staff and students reported a lack of female role models at Bristol and a lack of support for women, according to the report, which recommends that compulsory equity and diversity training be provided for managers, supervisors, recruiting and teaching staff, and students.

It also recommended more daytime and non-alcohol focused social events for staff to tackle the “old boys club” identified by the survey.

Alice Phillips, Bristol SU’s equality, liberation and access officer, said: “These findings are extremely concerning and illustrate that there is a real culture of sexism in STEM subjects that needs to be tackled.”

“I urge the university to follow the 2014 House of Commons recommendation to provide compulsory equality and diversity training…If universities value equality as much as they say they do they need to start taking seriously the experiences of women in academia.”

A statement from the university said that it is committed to creating and sustaining a “fair and positive working environment” for staff and students. “We will not tolerate discrimination, sexism, harassment or victimisation of any individual and any allegations are investigated and dealt with appropriately,” it says.

It adds that the university is keen to work with the SU to address the findings of the report and “to look at ways in which we can build on our existing initiatives aimed at improving gender equality for staff and students”.

holly.else@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Many universities, including a minority of the Russell group, have widened both undergraduate and MSc programmes to better prepare graduates for the rapidly expanding opportunities in STEM related professions such as industrial Project, Commercial and Technology Management. Indeed the Eng Doc and DSc regularly feature related topics for research. Moreover subsequent to a solid grounding in maths and science at GCSE level, a wide range of A and Vocational A levels are acceptable routes, even top up and/or conversion degrees, when properly marketed and well designed for female CPD . Some of the more progressive Professional bodies and employers are already heading in this direction. Maybe some stuffy traditional university departments need a wake up call.

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