|9 September 1999|
Increasing attention has been drawn to the problems faced by women in science, engineering and technology (SET). Women are unequally represented in science and their career progression is not comparable to their male colleagues. The growing interest in this topic may partly be because of the growing awareness of the huge untapped economic potential that women represent.
The Swedish study marked a turning point in Europe: research organizations, universities, charities and government could not ignore documented proof of discrimination, where previously claims of such discrimination had been suggested as being anecdotal. It was no longer possible to assume that an absence of women in science was due to women themselves, rather than the institutions to which they belonged.
An international issue
At a European level it has been recognized that statistics can produce valuable comparisons and that a network of member states and organizations might have significant political weight6. The EU is aware of the need to encourage women to take part in their research and is making significant efforts towards greater participation in the Fifth Framework Programme7,8, especially on expert committees.
Data from Canada and the USA show that far fewer women are successfully engaged in scientific enterprises than would have been expected given the increasing numbers of women in the workforce. The problem is not limited to the difficulty that women have in obtaining grants but also extends to their salaries, office space and access to research resources and positions of responsibility9,10 in comparison with male counterparts. In response, the National Academies for both Science and Engineering in the USA are now planning investigations into the data on women employed in science and engineering11. Similarities also exist in Latin America and the Caribbean12, and in Africa13 -- where women have difficulty in accessing education and are rarely found in hierarchical posts or at decision-making levels. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recognized the issue of women in science as a global challenge, an issue that was reflected in the documents adopted within the World Conference on Science14,15.
Before Sweden The absence of women from science, and the realization that this implies an underused human resource16, brought increased attention throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the UK to the issue of why this might be so. In figures that are by no means unique to the UK it was shown that, although roughly equal numbers of male and female UK undergraduates read biological sciences, the proportion of female undergraduates studying the physical, mathematical and computer sciences is far from equal17. The proportion of women at a graduate level is smaller than at undergraduate level, and continues to decline as one progresses through the ranks to professorial grades. At this final level as few as 3-4% of UK professors in any branch of SET are women18, a figure echoed in similar data for other countries. Government-funded research councils and ministerial departments fare no better. And the numbers of women who have been elected to Fellowships of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering or even the Institute of Biology are well below 10%.
At a European level there is little information except on the numbers of women in different areas of higher education, and averages currently conceal real and interesting geographical differences. For example, in mathematics and computer science and in engineering and architecture, women tend to be better represented in Italy, Portugal and Spain than in other European countries. But it is clear that, as in the UK and the USA18, there are small numbers of women in European research, they encounter career obstacles, and this results in their under-representation in senior posts19,20.
Why so few?
An interesting observation is that UK universities making the most progress at improving the position of women are those that have been recently transformed from technical colleges. This fact, which is embarrassing for the older, long-established universities, might be revealing, in that it suggests that a male-dominated culture exists in the traditional centres of higher education that can militate against women's achieving seniority or even equality. Such an 'establishment' atmosphere does not prevail to the same extent in the 'new' UK universities.
The male orientation of science?
There is no doubt that, as in all other professions, women as the child-bearers carry the 'burden' of child care (as well as the care of ageing parents), and unless family-friendly policies are in place in any given work place, the women employees are likely to be distracted from their career in SET, or indeed even perhaps taken away from it, for sometimes considerable periods. Returning to the laboratory then becomes an increasingly difficult task: time away from the lab leads to unfamiliarity with novel technologies and current 'state-of-the-art' equipment. Retraining is an expensive and time-consuming affair, and finding the necessary financial support and laboratory facilities can prove difficult. Cost can be a crucial issue, as higher education institutions lack the awareness of the costs of staff training, in contrast with industry, where it is deemed cost-effective to retrain staff and encourage returners.
What should be done?
With the growing awareness of the under-representation of women in the scientific community and the need for new strategies to be put into place, several policies have been introduced, including quantitative objectives, new administrative structures and, more recently, positive action. In higher education, government and industry, it is clear that it is imperative for equal opportunities and female-friendly policies to be in place to produce the highly desirable 'level playing field'.
Increasingly, establishments funding research and education are beginning to argue that the inclusion of women is simply best practice in human resources, because women constitute 50% of the talent available. The representation of women on decision-making bodies, such as national commissions and appointment committees, is also vital. Equal pay for all and recognition of 'time out' for child-rearing (most effectively by using 'academic', rather than chronological, age) are crucial too. The inclusion of women in the networking circles of the men at the centre of power would be of further great benefit. Some or all of these actions are recognized as important, as is demonstrated by the schemes set up in countries around the world; some key actions are given in Table 1.
What measures do you think could profitably be taken to improve the current position of women in SET? Are any of the schemes being put in place in the UK or Europe likely to be particularly valuable? How can we obtain a 'better deal' for women? Is only lip-service being paid to the current under-representation? What do you think we should do? Your views are sought.
References and notes