Women in STEM waiting for structural change

Dame Athene Donald brands MPs’ report on women in science ‘weak’

February 20, 2014

Conclusions from a report on women in science failed to address the structural changes needed in academia to tackle inequality, according to a leading scholar.

Dame Athene Donald, the University of Cambridge’s gender equality champion, criticised as “fairly weak” the Commons Science and Technology Committee’s recent Women in Scientific Careers recommendations.

She is also among more than 50 signatories from the University of Cambridge to a letter published in Times Higher Education this week, calling for changes in how academics are assessed so that women do not face disadvantages for taking on tasks in teaching, administration and public engagement, rather than research. The letter says that a broader set of metrics should be used to evaluate performance and determine promotion.

Dame Athene told THE she was disappointed that the Commons report was mainly directed at academia and did not consider the role that funding bodies could play in tackling gender inequality.

The report, which was published on 6 February, said that some universities are failing to address the problems facing female academics in science, technology, engineering and maths.

It gave a number of recommendations, including a call to increase the number of longer-term positions available for those who have recently completed a PhD.

Dame Athene, professor of experimental physics at Robinson College, Cambridge, said: “They were concerned about short-term contracts as if that is something that academia could do a huge amount about.”

She added: “The debate about whether you want fewer two- and three-year postdocs and more five- and 10-year fellowships is a massive one that an individual higher education institution certainly cannot do anything about.”

The length of post-doctoral positions is determined by grants from research funders, she said, adding that the committee “just did not face up to the structural changes that would be required”.

Addressing concerns in the letter to THE, she said that jobs in areas such as pastoral care – often assigned to women – are “absolutely essential to the well-being of our communities” but the academy needs to decide if it values them or not. If they are valued, then those carrying them out should be “recognised as important to the university”, she argued.

“Cambridge is in a position to encourage other universities to think about this,” Dame Athene added.

holly.else@tsleducation.com

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