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Gender Barriers In Science

Studies of women scientists show that many consider their workplace to have an u

Studies of women scientists show that many consider their workplace to have an unfriendly culture.

By Stephen Luntz

Australia is losing a huge proportion of potential scientists as women drop out of science at a disturbingly high rate.

While similar numbers of women and men are studying science at university, women are less likely to maintain careers in science.

The obstacles to female scientists and engineers were thrashed out at Parliament House in April during the Women in Science and Engineering summit. More than a talkfest, the summit announced a number of initiatives to tackle the problem.

On the surface the position of women in Australian science looks good. Not long ago the Chief Scientist, the Chief Executive of our largest scientific research organisation, our most recent Nobel Prize Winner and the President and CEO of Australia’s peak body representing scientists were all women. Look deeper, however, and the picture is not so bright.

The Statistics
Prof Sharon Bell, now Deputy Vice Chancellor at Charles Darwin University, wrote a 2009 report for the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) on women in science. She found that only 22.3% of full-time professionals in Design, Engineering, Science and Transport were women.

While some lag might be expected from the era when most science students were male, the increase from 1996 was small enough (just 4.2%) to suggest that the problem isn’t fixing itself. In some areas, such as information and communications technology, the proportion of women had fallen from the late 1990s.

Women also tend to be more likely to fill the lower-paid positions in any field, representing 21% of CSIRO’s research scientists but less than 10% of those at the top salary level and 8% of research managers. Fellowships, be they from the Australian Research Council, the Australian Academy of Science or the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering, live up to their name. In all cases less than 10% are held by women.

Bell’s report notes: “That women are under-represented in senior academic positions does indicate barriers to ‘success’ but does not necessarily equate to attrition. Women may be moving from the academy into productive work in industry, government or not-for-profit sectors commensurate with their knowledge and skills base. However, the absence of reliable data that tracks mobility of the scientific workforce between universities, industry and government means it is much harder to evaluate whether there is net attrition or simply a wide range of graduate and postgraduate outcomes.”

The problem is not unique to Australia. A US National Academy of Sciences study noted that even in the social and behavioural sciences, where the proportion of doctorates going to women has been above 30% for more than 30 years, women make up around 15% of professors at leading research institutions.

The shortage of women in science does not appear to be because women are less interested than men in scientific careers. The 2002 Careers Review of Engineering Women found similar levels of commitment among men and women at the start of their careers, but that this enthusiasm wanes as women become concentrated in lower status positions.

Causes of the Problem
The most obvious part of the problem is the difficulties women experience re-entering science after taking maternity leave. This is a problem even for the most successful scientists.

For example, Dr Carola Vinuesa produced two children and three Nature papers in 3 years. Exhausted by the combined workload, she was on the verge of quitting when she won the 2008 Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. Besides affirming the value of her work, she used the $50,000 that came with the prize to hire domestic help. This gave her more time with her daughters and more capacity to focus on her work, leading to a promotion and salary increase. However, few women are offered the same opportunity, and few men face the same demands on their time from outside their jobs.

Women also appear to be more likely to be assigned heavier teaching loads, giving less time for research. A particularly disturbing study by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia (APESMA) found: “At nearly every level of responsibility, female professional scientists are earning on average significantly less than their male counterparts”. An APESMA survey of 1000 women scientists found that pay inequity was the second largest reason, after inflexible working conditions, that almost one-quarter of women expected to leave the profession.

A National Association of Science study, Beyond Bias and Barriers, found that while women and men were equally good at science and mathematics, women expressed consistently less confidence in their abilities.

Even for those who gain a science degree, an early lack of confidence can be a problem. Girls, for instance, are less likely to study advanced mathematics at school. This may not prevent them from graduating in certain fields of science, but may prove a challenge later on in a research career.

Lack of confidence is probably also the reason female scientists are less likely than men to apply for promotions even when they are equally qualified.

Studies of women scientists show that many consider their workplace to have an unfriendly culture. Bell quotes a study where 42.3% of women said they experienced discrimination while working as engineers, with more than half saying they were sexually harassed.

Women also publish fewer papers than men, but their work is apparently of higher quality when judged by citation rates.

Solutions from the Summit
Recognition of this crisis was behind the April summit, which followed on from a UNESCO event earlier in the year in New York. More than 160 participants attended the Canberra event, with the CEOs of major scientific employers and funding organisations mixing with middle and early career researchers.

“Australia simply cannot afford not to be making the most of such a significant component of our workforce, intellect and creativity,” said Kate Ellis, the Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare and the Status of Women on the first day. By the end of the summit there was tangible hope that we might not have to.

The National Health and Medical Research Council announced that in future researchers would be able to nominate any 5-year period of their careers when applying for grants, rather than the previous 5 years. Thus researchers who have taken time out for maternity leave or ill-health will no longer be automatically disadvantaged when applying for grants.

The Australian Research Council will use a slightly different approach, allowing grant applicants the chance to nominate a longer period of time than normal, along with explanations of why their work has been interrupted. The CEO of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), Anna-Maria Arabia, says that this could have other benefits. “There are a lot of scientists who are reluctant to take part in professional development programs lest it count against them in grant applications,” she notes.

CSIRO promised to increase the number of Payne-Scott awards, which assist women returning to the workforce after maternity leave, although no numbers were provided.

The summit was also an opportunity for those employers with gender successes to make them known. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) announced that they have increased the proportion of women in their Graduate Development Program from 25% in 2007 to 45% this year.

CSIRO will conduct a report of internal gender participation, including a review of its entire promotion projects. Other announcements focused on increasing information, with FASTS conducting an audit program of practices that may be discouraging women from continuing in science. FASTS will also collect examples of programs that have proven successful in raising the number of women in science.

“There were some really great initiatives from certain institutions,” Arabia says, “but these are not systematic enough to make a difference to the industry”. She nominates the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s policy of promoting flexible work hours, with all positions available part-time. “The University of Western Australia held a position open until a suitable number of women applied. They said: ‘We know you’re out there’.”

Arabia hopes that the publication of such programs will provide a toolkit for other institutions that want to address the number of women dropping out. Despite this, the summit attracted only a handful of media stories, most written by participants rather than journalists.

Success is vital, not only for basic justice but because, as Arabia notes: “When women leave the workforce, with them goes hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment in their education and training”.