In Britain, only 15–20% of women with a degree in science, engineering and technology (SET) fields are working in a SET occupation. Some 50,000 have left the sector. And everyday workplace culture may be one major barrier to their recruitment, retention and advancement.

Representatives of universities, professional institutions and industry gathered at a seminar at the Institute of Physics (IOP) in London in late June to learn what 'workplace culture' means, how to assess it and how to change it. The seminar was organized by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC), which was set up in 2004 with government funding to assist employers and individual women to tackle the problems.

Wendy Faulkner, of the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh, told delegates that the ways in which different individuals come to belong to the group may affect whether women are accepted. She suggested that workplace culture included styles of interacting, topics of conversation, humour and social circles. Crucially, said Faulkner, facets of masculine culture (such as football discussions and macho attitudes) mesh well with the culture of SET workplaces. Anecdotes from women she has interviewed suggested that they found it hard to fit in, whether because they couldn't take part in a joke or because they weren't seen as 'real' engineers. In some cases, male colleagues made inappropriate remarks. One woman said she wanted to report a culprit, but felt she had neither the confidence nor the support. Delegates at the meeting mutely mouthed recognition.

Forty companies have made changes after using the UKRC's culture analysis tool of detailed questionnaires for managers and staff. Both the IOP and the Royal Society of Chemistry have used 'site visits' to assess cultures in university departments. This resulted in the IOP's formulation of a code of practice for addressing gender issues, including “appointment, promotion and selection processes and procedures that encourage men and women to apply for academic posts at all levels”. This code could be adapted by organizations in other disciplines, says Peter Main, director of education and training at the IOP.

Studying and assessing workplace cultures is a difficult task. But if it helps to retain more women in SET fields, it's worthwhile nonetheless.