Isolation and lack of encouragement fuel exit from academia
A slew of recent reports have warned that talented women are continuing to leave research because academia is overpoweringly ’masculine’.
Writing in this issue of Chemistry World, Annette Williams, director of the Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC), points out that although 47 per cent of chemistry graduates are female, only 6 per cent of chemistry professors are women.
And a report to be co-published by RSC and the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET later this year, reveals that many female PhD students rule out a future in academia because they feel isolated and find lab culture too macho.
’This attrition rate shows that there are issues during the transition period from PhD to research career,’ says Williams. ’It’s during this time that women lose confidence - they find research isolating and the prospect of bidding for their own research funding is daunting.’ Williams also points out that female PhD students often don’t receive the encouragement they need to pursue a career in research.
So how can capable women researchers be persuaded to opt in? ’It would be excellent if the RAE [Research Assessment Exercise] focused on the stage of a research career - rather than on the number of publications,’ says Williams. ’Women are more likely to take career breaks, so they are less prolific in terms of publications.’
A study published in the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) journal in July drew similar conclusions. Simona Palermo from the Parco Tecnologico Padona in Lodi, Italy, and her colleagues questioned male and female researchers - mostly staff at publicly funded research institutes. Many of the women questioned in the survey agreed that ’female scientists are not able to reach higher positions in science because they are less determined to fight for their careers, or are unwilling to adopt more competitive behaviour, which they consider to be a typical characteristic of the male gender’.
’The main point we are seeing is the negative attitude towards women within research,’ says Palermo. ’It’s not just the attitude of men towards their female colleagues, but of other women too.
’And the prevailing values in the research environment - such as competitiveness - are typically masculine. We need to give more importance to the values that motivate women’s research careers, such as curiosity and collaboration,’ she adds.
Jo Handelsman is professor of bacteriology and co-founder of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) at the University of Wisconsin, US. She agrees that a brutally competitive culture is off-putting to many women. ’Chemistry seems to be much more cut-throat than biology in terms of competition. It’s more about getting to the finish line first than how you get there, and I think competition, in its fiercest form, is more appealing to men.’
But according to Handelsman the problem runs much deeper, and discrimination starts very early in people’s careers. ’We harbour an unconscious bias against men and women in situations that don’t fit our stereotypes. That includes men teaching kindergarten as well as women in positions of leadership. We’re suspicious of them, and these judgements make women doubt their own competence.
’Women in traditionally non-female roles are questioned more than men - there’s a lot of research to show this,’ she says. ’There was one particularly good experiment using a real woman professor’s r?sum?s, one from the time she was hired and the other from the time she was given tenure. They were labelled at random with either a man’s or a woman’s name and sent to over 200 academic psychologists, who were asked for their feedback - would they hire the candidate and would they grant them tenure? There was a very strong bias against hiring if the name of the r?sum? was female.
’Interestingly, at tenure, there was no statistical difference, but when the r?sum?s were returned, there were far more notes in the margin on the female r?sum? - referring to the fact that the reviewers would want to see more evidence, teaching evaluations etc.’
This month the RSC also published a report called Planning for success: good practice in university science departments. It includes a checklist to help universities build the best working environment for both men and women.
The checklist includes the continual monitoring of student and staff profiles, encouraging male and female staff to apply for promotions and ensuring flexible working policies and practices are upheld.
Sarah Dickinson, the RSC’s science policy and diversity specialist says that such small changes can have a big impact. ’This guide supports a cultural shift, one to benefit both men and women,’ she says. ’We are finding that best practices like flexible working are great for women with families or other caring responsibilities, but they are also benefiting men. During our site visits and interviews we found instances where men were claiming that for the first time, they felt confident to go and ask for paternity leave or to leave early to pick up their children.’
Heads of departments, at whom these guidelines are aimed, have a major role to play in improving equality in the university system - not least in supporting and encouraging young women to pursue research careers.
’I think constructive feedback is more important to female scientists,’ says Helen Fielding who is a professor of chemistry at UCL. ’When I was a PhD, I never imagined that I would ever be an academic. I thought, there are no women, so why would I make it? But it made a big difference for me was that my supervisor was very encouraging. I was very lucky - people put faith in me at the right time.’
Williams says that career success stories, like Fielding’s, provide crucial inspiration for young researchers. ’It’s important to increase the visibility of role models for young women researchers,’ she says.
Flexibility is inherently difficult in a university environment, and it remains a challenge, primarily for women, to balance work and family commitments. But Williams is convinced that most universities will invest time and resources in promoting equality. ’If I was a head of department and I saw that I was losing talented women, I would want to do something about it,’ she says.
For example, in the UK, 30 research institutes and universities have joined the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) Charter - a scheme which recognises excellence in science, engineering and technology employment for women in higher education and research.
And the German Research Foundation (DFG) recently announced its Research orientated gender equality standards, a series of guidelines for the universities and research institutes funded by the DFG to follow, in order to promote equal opportunities for men and women.
Handelsman says that heads of department will need some guidance. ’Most of us are good, decent people that want to be fair. But many might think they’re just too busy for these kinds of changes and new pressures - we’re scientists and we’re not trained to manage people,’ she says. ’But I’m often struck by how easy some of the solutions are. On occasions, it’s been as having a simple conversation to resolve a problem with a colleague.
’What we need to make clear is that good practice and promoting equality isn’t a gift for women - it isn’t charity. We invest in training these women scientists, and they wouldn’t be in postgraduate programmes unless they were very good. We need to reap the benefits of their training - it’s critical for the success of science.’
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