Here comes the science part …

10 Feb

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has released a report damning the poor proportions of women at senior levels in science professions.  Quite right too.  It is a national problem, and an issue on which the Leninist question remains: ‘What is to be done’?  As ever, the ‘doing something’ part is where the problems start: how, when and where should we intervene to ensure greater gender equality in science careers?

One aspect of the report which is genuinely infuriating, is the declaration that efforts to encourage females into science at school are ‘wasted’ if women do not then go the whole hog and adopt science disciplines as undergraduates, postgraduates and eventually as highly skilled workers inside or outside academe.  Never mind the structure, feel the process – can you imagine a world where it was said that effort to educate white working class boys at school was ‘wasted’ because they are not statistically likely to end up at the top of the tree? No, me neither. In other arenas this might be termed victim-blaming.  But science is above all that.   The Science and Technology report deserves praise for going on to include observations about rewarding and retaining women as careers progress.

So how do women ‘fail’ to meet their potential in science?  Well, they don’t actually fail so much as find roadblocks on the way.  The report is quite strong in identifying transition points which work against many women sticking at a science career:  such as the unstable short-term contracts which dominate post-qualification ;  the need to publish regularly, which makes no allowance for career breaks – typically taken to have children.  The combination of lack of long-term employment rights and perceived lack of publishing presence over a time period, stymies progression for many early career female scientists.  The report is right to suggest that these issues should not only be examined as women’s issues, and that fathers who have achieved in science should also be recognised as having to reconcile work and family life.  But when the share of females (let alone mothers) in senior positions remains so low (17% professors in STEM subjects) it is clear that the odds remain heavily stacked against women’s life trajectories.  Furthermore, the report is very open about the fact that scientists’ own unconscious bias has a role in appointments, whilst at the same time senior scientists can tend towards a view that their professional standards of objectivity render any recruitment biases null.  Research studies, however, consistently demonstrate that panels will recruit males over females, when the only difference in submitted CVs is the gender identity of the name at the top.

So back to the ‘what is to be done?’ question.  Notwithstanding all the difficult issues already raised – and this report’s own view that it is presenting nothing new – there are some grounds for optimism.  All attempts to quantify the benefits of including women in science at every level appear to pull in the same direction: having women on board improves science produced.  Economically it makes no sense to exclude women scientists because we need a strong and diverse science workforce to produce innovation and wealth.  The government should be interested in women’s participation in science as a rights issue, but even if they are not, there is a short answer as to why they should be: because we’re worth it.

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