Response to “Women in Scientific Careers” report

Portcullis logo of ParliamentThis morning, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee have released their Report on ‘Women in Scientific Careers’. The Report sought to examine:

  1. why the number of women in STEM academic careers declines up the ladder?
  2. what Government, Universities and the HE sector should be doing about it?
  3. where women who leave academia go?

In brief, the findings relating to each of those questions can be summarised as:

  1. we’ve known this for ages
  2. a lot more than they are doing – this conversation is not a new one
  3. we still don’t really know and that’s disappointing – it’s crucial to challenging bad practice

Unconscious bias

A key thread running through the House of Commons STC Report is the clear recognition that academic career structure as it stands was made by men, for men. Specifically, as Dr Kate Sloyan states, “men with stay at home wives”. STEM is still seen by students as being ‘for‘ white, middle class men.

We live in a highly gendered society and prevalent cultural messages undermine the aspirations and choices of children – for example, in the marketing of many STEM toys as ‘for boys’. ScienceGrrl therefore believes that tackling gender inequality in STEM must take place with a wider angle vision. Challenging gender stereotypes something that should be taken seriously at the highest levels. We are pleased to see there is cross-party consensus that gendered marketing is ‘a bad thing’ – something that was highlighted in Chi Onwurah’s Westminster Hall debate on the matter yesterday – and believe there is a pressing need for Government and industry leadership.

Importantly, the thrust of this Report is to recognise that school children are not the only ones who suffer from unconscious bias – that scientists (being, of course, people) can also fall prey to the stereotypes so prevalent in wider society. Gender, however, is clearly only one aspect of the ‘white, middle class, male’ identity conflict triumvirate. Tackling wider diversity issues should be embedded as core practice. We support the recommendations (paragraphs 30 & 31) that equality and diversity training be available for students and mandatory for those on selection and promotion panels.

Patchy careers support

What is striking is how much of the Report ended up focusing on problems with academic careers in general – i.e. things affecting both men and women. This is a hugely welcome – tackling outdated academic structures will be central to improving the workplace for everyone. This includes the familiar problem of short term contracts and ensuing personal and financial instability. One of the other factors ScienceGrrl was keen to highlight in our evidence submission were the problems resulting from a narrow view of success.

Currently, there is a real lack of information about routes other than an academic track. In addition, the non-research skills that are central to life as a PhD student or post-doc are not well-recognised by other sectors. This leaves the vast majority who will not gain a permanent academic post under-resourced when it comes to careers advice and moving sector.  We support the recommendations that Government should work with the HE sector to review career structure with a view to increasing the number of more stable and permanent postdoctoral positions (paragraph 47), and that authoritative and impartial careers advice on options outside academia should be available to all students and researchers (paragraph 70).

Undervaluing non-research skills

Allowing non-research skills to go unrewarded is a theme that continues through an academic career, and results in a naive view of what it really takes to be a successful academic because, in reality:

“academic scientists spend a considerable proportion of their time communicating, networking, writing grant proposals, supervising students, managing staff, teaching, and – increasingly – performing public outreach activities and working on the commercial exploitation of their findings”  -STFC-WiSTEM Network (paragraph 51)

Specifically, promotion appraisals really only take into account “research income and publication output”, under-emphasising other contributions. There is evidence that this disadvantages women, who may be more likely to take on additional responsibilities (such as teaching) and/or be over-stretched by the pressure to be a role model by “further burdening talented female staff with administrative duties”. There is currently a lack of process or imperative to include non-research activities in promotion assessments. ScienceGrrl supports the recommendation that non-research activities are recognised in performance and appraisal boards (paragraph 54).

What is a role model?

Clearly, it is not fair to expect the small number of senior women to take up the challenge of being role models alone. Firstly, it is not practical. Secondly, it sends the message that changing societal norms is somehow a ‘women’s issue’.

There isn’t time to discuss the aspects of the report dealing with balancing a career and family in this post, but we are pleased at the focus on changing attitudes and making it an equal choice for both men and women. This feeds into role models. ScienceGrrl strongly believes that men and women can be good role models (and mentors, and sponsors) for those coming up the ladder in any field. What is important is that such role models capture an aspect of identity not served by the ‘white, middle class, male’ stereotype and that they understand the challenges faced by those who don’t fit it. Showcasing more men who have taken career breaks, more men juggling family life, more men in non-traditional STEM careers will help break down these walls. We support the recommendation that HEIs should actively emphasise male and female role models who are not ‘super-human’ and who, for example, successfully take advantage of flexible working agreements (paragraph 38).

Sponsorship is crucial for confidence – and progression

We would, however, like to sound a note of caution regarding the enthusiasm for mentoring schemes. There is evidence from the business sector that women are being ‘mentored to death’ while men go ahead and grab opportunities. A sponsor is something different – someone who takes an active interest in a developing career and seeks out opportunities for advancement. At one of our sessions to gather evidence for our written submission, a ScienceGrrl member told us:

“I was pushed by my boss to move faster and take responsibility before I thought I could – I was given opportunities which built my confidence”

A lack of confidence, translated into caution, is regularly cited as something that holds more women back than men. We feel that currently academic careers are left to blow in the wind – progress is very much dependent on local attitudes and personalities. Leadership on this is vital. We note that David Willetts, MP (Minister of State for Universities and Science) pointed to Vitae as a resource for those wishing to stay on the track, but we are unsure how widely it is used in practice. HEIs must take real responsibility for progression. They must actively promote resources pertaining to a wide range of careers, and place a higher value on the non-research skills of those further up the ladder – skills that include mentoring/sponsorship.

The Report details the many ways women can fall down the cracks in academia – but it goes further and rightly exposes these as deeper issues within the system itself.  If society can cultivate a supportive academic environment it will pay dividends both in efficiency and diversity.