Women who must be heard

December 1, 1995

The delegates, almost all female, at last week's British Association meeting on careers for women in science, technology and engineering were both impressive and depressing.

Impressive because of the huge amount of work they have done over the past few years to achieve a sophisticated analysis of the status of women in these subjects and to make imaginative recommendations for improvement.

In the United Kingdom they produced The Rising Tide report more than a year ago, commissioned by the Government. In Europe they held a workshop in 1993, commissioned by the European Commission, at the end of which they surprised the commission by producing a precise agenda for change.

Similarly impressive was the amount these women have done since these reports were produced. To tackle the lack of women in influential scientific advisory positions in Europe, a database of top-class women was produced.

In the UK, the women's development unit at the Office of Science and Technology has produced a list of relevant databases. The unit has also produced a compendium of best practice among firms and research institutes.

But the meeting was also depressing. The coffee breaks resounded with tales of women passed over for promotion because rival men were younger; for example the case of the woman advised by her vice chancellor to get a DSc in order to shame her professor into promoting her.

Less anecdotal and equally depressing were the short tales about what has been done with these women's work: very little. Professor Mary Osborn, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, claimed the commission has followed up none of the European workshop's recommendations, although the commission disagrees. There is general ignorance of the compendium of best practice.

This is a sad tale told by many who campaign for change which comprises endless commissioning of reports, endless resulting recommendations, then nothing.

These women have taken the issue as far as they can. They have firmly hit the ball into the employers' court. It is time for employers to stop their knee-jerk explanations of the lack of women in senior scientific positions and to start considering this important work.

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