Where have all the women gone?


About a week ago Lesley Yellowlees President-Elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and Vice-Principal at the University of Edinburgh, described the UK as being 50 years behind the States in terms of “advancing the cause of women scientists”.  While over a quarter of the fellows appointed by the (American) National Academy of Science this year were women, just 2 of the 44 newly appointed FRS were female. Why are there so few women in the upper echelons of science?

In 2001/2 63% of full time undergrads and 56% of full time postgrads studying biology in the UK were female (c.f. the Physical sciences where even the undergraduate population is less than 40% women.) But at the faculty level, the outlook is rather different. In my own department of 44 ‘academic staff’, just 9 are women. Three of those are Professors, out of a total of 21. The Mothers in Science pdf I talk about lower down says that

Official statistics for the academic year 2005/06 show 23% of lecturers, 13% of senior lecturers and readers and just 7% of professors in science subjects are women.

Putting aside for a moment blatant sexism or discrimination (which, while important, are not, I believe, more prevalent in science than other fields) a successful career in academia can prove problematic for women on a number of fronts. Research isn’t the only field in which women find themselves less successful than their male peers, but the old mantra of ‘publish or perish’ does seem to exacerbate the problem for young women scientists. On the one hand, as in many fields, there is the perennial issue of career vs family. Time off – for whatever reason – will always translate into missed opportunities and slower promotion through the ranks, regardless of the field one is working in. But whereas a teacher may have two years away to start her family, and then return to roughly the position she was in before, the same is not true in publishing-driven academia. Permanent contracts, grants, awards… all of these things are necessary to advance a career in academia, and all of them require an impressive publication record.

The first Women in Science dinner I attended had two key note speakers: One was sadly unable to have children and the other’s partner who lost his job early in their family life. She continued to work full time as a scientist while he provided childcare. Neither is the typical situation that young women in science find themselves in, and I’ve heard more horror stories about postdocs finding themselves unable to keep up with how fast technology moved while they were taking a maternity leave, or unable to explain away the gap in their publication record than I like to think about.

However the situation for mothers does seem to be getting better. It’s becoming increasingly common for men to take paternity leave too. Universities are now more prone to offer some kind of childcare. PIs are becoming more flexible. Since starting this blog, all of two weeks ago, I have finally found the hidden cache of women scientists who blog. Don’t ask me how I’ve managed to remain blithely unaware of them for so long: it’s not like I haven’t been looking. But since the beginning of  May I have discovered FemaleScienceProfessor, who is a mum; and A Lady Scientist, who is a mum; and also Jeanne Garbarino, whose website I can never get to work, but who tweets at @JeanneGarb, as well as some who it seems are no longer in the blogosphere (e.g. Dr Mom) but whose archives are worth reading nonetheless. I also enjoyed reading York University’s ‘Mothers in Science‘ booklet, which talks about the different paths that successful women scientists have taken in having their families.

But maternity leave isn’t the whole story. The other pervasive issue for women seeking academic tenure is that of being published and winning grants and lectureships and awards in the first place. At that same Women in Science dinner I was repeatedly told that women will apply for a fellowship only when they are absolutely certain that they deserve to have it. (And who of us doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time?). They will only publish a paper that they feel completely confident in. By contrast, men will take a chance to see what happens. One academic told of how he specifically replied in much more detail to potential PhD students when they were women, because in his experience men would apply for the position regardless of what he said, whereas women would be disheartened by anything less than enthusiastic approval.

The latter cannot easily be dismissed, but I don’t want to deal with it in any detail here. As a 16 year old I was unable to take Physics A-level, because the teacher responsible for the course cared more about my gender than the A* GCSE result I had achieved. At the same time, I like to think that those who believe that women ‘can’t do’ science are a rare and dying breed, and this is no more of an issue in my field than in business or management or finance.

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