Monday, 8 December 2014

Gender diversity in science: where are all the women?

Gender diversity is such a big issue today, especially when it comes to STEM subjects. There is no doubt gender diversity in STEM has improved over the last few decades but there is still a severe imbalance: only 13% of all STEM jobs in the UK are taken up by women, and if you disregard jobs in medicine, that figure drops to 9%. Academic careers in STEM also suffer from a gender imbalance, and what is striking is how the proportion of women at each level of increasing seniority drops: for example, in the physical sciences, though women take up 42% of postgraduate places, they only take up 10% of professor positions. The full set of statistics, put together by Scienceogram UK, can be found here (and it’s definitely worth a look).

So why is this the case? In February earlier this year, the House of Commons published a report (here) on this very subject. They pick out two primary explanations for the lack of gender diversity in STEM careers. Firstly, gender biases, which are largely unconscious, both influence employers away from recruiting women and also influence women themselves from pursuing STEM careers. Secondly, the nature of the early academic career structure tends to deter women more than men from pursuing academic careers: it is composed of short-term contracts, often not more than a year or two, which often require international relocation. It seems that women are more likely than men to give up an academic career in light of the job insecurity and instability that results.

How can we tackle these issues? It’s not easy: unconscious gender biases are so ingrained in our society, and the fact that we are not aware of them makes them so much harder to combat. The House of Commons report has recommended providing STEM undergraduates and postgraduates with equality and diversity training, also noting that such training should be mandatory for all STEM recruiters and line managers, which is a start.

Tackling the barriers presented by the academic career structure is equally difficult, but for different reasons: the career structure is based on a complicated set of factors, constrained by the way in which Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), research councils and other funding institutions work. This makes changing the structure much more difficult. And, as the government points out in their response to the House of Commons report, published in May (here), the contract lengths of academic positions is ultimately the choice of the HEIs, meaning the government have limited say in the matter.

It’s not obvious how we can move forward. Perhaps the way to changing the academic career structure is to target the HEIs themselves, or to put pressure on the funding institutions to offer longer-term contracts. Certainly, one way to improve unconscious gender bias is to talk about it, to make us aware of the biases that we may not even realize we have, because this at least gives us a chance of tackling them.