Science & Environment

Viewpoint: Plug 'leaky pipeline' for women in science

Woman scientist

On Tuesday 16 July, about 100 people with an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (also known as Stem) gathered in a boardroom in central London, armed with coffee and pastries.

The age range was huge, but the gender balance was quite uneven. For once though, it was women in the majority. The reason?

This was a breakfast organised by Peter Luff MP and ScienceGrrl, an organisation promoting women in Stem, to discuss a government consultation on the topic.

The "leaky pipeline" analogy is often used when talking about women in Stem careers. Certainly I noticed, as an undergraduate psychologist, that despite my intake being predominantly women, the senior staff in the department were male, almost to a… man?

It's not one place where women are leaving academia (or Stem careers in general, the problem isn't unique to universities), the numbers of women decrease at all levels.

This isn't a new problem, but though it's been talked about for years now, change has been slow to see.

That's why it was very good news to hear that the government were taking the issue seriously, and had launched a public consultation as to why this happens, and what action institutions and indeed the government themselves can take.

It's often assumed that the reason for women being lost to, in particular, academia is due to starting families, and the necessary career break that follows from this.

The culture surrounding baby and child care in UK still very much expects women to take the time off. As an attempt to counter this cultural problem, university departments can apply for an Athena Swan award.

This organisation offers gold, silver or bronze awards for encouraging a culture of equality and equal opportunity, and a lot of departments are signing up, currently 179 institutions and departments have awards, but only three have achieved gold status.

Among other things, award winning departments consider how departmental structure might penalise people with children, and makes changes to minimise these. For example, not arranging important meetings late in the day, so those who need to collect children from school or nursery do not miss them.

The challenges inherent in having a family are not the only barriers, however. In a study published in the journal PNAS researchers showed potential employers a number of CVs, either with a male or female name at the top.

Despite identical content, people more often thought the men were more employable. And this is before the evidence that women are less likely than men to put themselves forward for promotions and the like.

The latter problem can be tackled practically: some university departments routinely collect everyone's CVs when offering promotions, so people don't need to put themselves forward. The former problem is a little harder to solve, anonymous CVs don't really work when you want to promote your publications, and you're probably identifiable from your CV anyway.

But how unique are these problems to Stem - do these issues face women attempting to progress to senior roles in other fields too?

Stem careers are at a disadvantage even from early career stage (although this varies depending on specific subject). According to the Wise report in 2012, up to GCSE level, there is an increasing trend for girls to take Stem subjects. But then the drop-off starts.

Some 13% of the Stem workforce are women, and the higher up the career ladder you go, the larger the deficit becomes. Women represent 10% of Stem managers, and 17% of top grade academics. So although these problems may not be specific to Stem, they're more noticeable as women are already in a minority, when their careers have barely begun.

When Peter Luff addressed the room on Tuesday morning, he said the government wanted practical solutions, "ten things to change the world" as he described it.

He envisaged small changes done well, rather than grand broad statements that are unwieldy to implement. Hopefully there will be progress, as a gender balance in the workplace benefits everyone. There is evidence that both men and women behave differently in a mixed work environment, and both genders can achieve more by working together, and alongside each other.