STEM the inertia on inequality

MPs have highlighted the problem of too few women in science, but more than words are needed to tackle the issue

February 6, 2014

“I am quite shocked that it can be 2013 and there can still be firsts for women.”

This devastatingly simple observation was made by Marin Alsop at the Royal Albert Hall when she took charge as the first female conductor of the Last Night of the Proms last year.

It could just as easily have come from Madeleine Atkins, who last year became the first female head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It’s not her style, perhaps, but it would have been a point well made.

The failure to nurture, promote and reap the full rewards of female talent in higher education is well documented, particularly in relation to the most senior roles.

But this week a report from the Commons Science and Technology Committee sets out the specific issues in science.

Its detailed study draws out both the systemic and the cultural factors at play.

For example, we know about the “leaky pipeline”: the way that women fall by the wayside at each career stage, from postdoc to lecturer, senior lecturer to professor.

Not only is there a lack of female role models, but a male-dominated leadership discriminates against up-and-coming female scientists

But this has a double impact: not only is there a lack of female role models, but a male-dominated leadership – or a perception that the qualities required to excel in research are in some way “male” – further discriminates against up-and-coming female scientists.

As one witness puts it, perception matters because “there’s a very strong hierarchy within university research structures”, which makes “support from established academics of critical importance in the career opportunities available to junior researchers”.

To extend this line of argument, there is a particular culture in research that rewards “alpha” personalities and that is to a large degree self-perpetuating.

In its evidence to MPs, University College London argues that imbalance at the top also “influences the nature and process of knowledge production”. This can be as stark as researchers gathering evidence with an innately male bias, the committee suggests (for example, it says that there are no female crash test dummies).

The report also points out that the problem of inequality in the sector is not uniform – the stage at which women are lost from the leaky pipeline varies from field to field, for instance.

Funding for the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology was cut in 2010, but among the success stories in recent years has been the Athena SWAN initiative, which accredits departments that support women in science.

However, the scheme has few teeth, and although the chief medical officer (a woman) has taken a lead in linking Athena SWAN accreditation to eligibility for grants from the National Institute for Health Research, the research councils have not followed suit.

The Commons committee concludes that it would be “impractical to mandate that applicants for research funding must hold Athena SWAN awards”.

But the suspicion is that without some compulsion, the complexity of the problem – and the narrowing of managerial horizons as institutions focus on competition and survival – may condemn us to a fate warned of in the report’s opening salvo: that it “will take 50 or 80 years before we get gender equality if we just keep doing the same thing, hoping that the pipeline will produce more women scientists”.

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