Policy Lunchbox Meets to Consider Women in Science

Science policy professionals met on Wednesday 3 March for a ‘Policy Lunchbox’ Seminar organised by the Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society. This seminar in the Policy Lunchbox series was led by Jane Butcher, Deputy Director, UK Resource Centre (UKRC) for Women in SET, on the topic of ‘Women in science: a policy perspective’. Jane’s presentation stressed the importance of maintaining the presence of the issues facing women in science on the agenda of the next Government, and how working collaboratively this might be achieved.

The vision of UKRC is that “by 2030 we will have an environment in UK Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) employment, research and policy making, in which women contribute to, participate in and share the benefit equally to their male counterparts”. The UKRC has recently published its Annual Review summarising its work and achievements over the past 18 months, including responding to consultations, providing briefings to parliamentarians and contributing to numerous policy initiatives.

This policy environment is highly complex: stereotyping and unconscious bias is brought about and reinforced by the employment life cycle. This includes inputs from society, education and employment policies and environments and life styles. Given this complexity, it is important to UKRC that encouragement of women in science is not just done from an early careers perspective, but looking towards the long term sustainability of increased numbers of women in SET – which includes the retention of those already employed in the sector.

The UKRC has six messages to the Government that would be crucial for building on the current momentum for change:
1. Leadership and top level support for change
2. Attracting and retaining women and girls to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)
3. Making the most of the talents of UK’s trained and qualified people to build the workforce.
4. Make SET learning and employment free from gender stereotyping
5. Take measures to make equality in SET happen
6. Support and fund the UKRC in its work, and strengthen its role in leading, providing services, influencing and innovating.

Jane led the discussion on how these goals might be achieved, sharing the ways in which the UKRC is working towards them. The advantages of targets for the numbers of women in SET versus quotas were considered: although rigid quotas have been seen to work in Norway, for the moment they are seen to be unpalatable and supported targets may be more pragmatic.

The role that professional bodies and learned societies might play in supporting the adult careers strategy was discussed: UKRC view professional bodies as key stakeholders, who act as influencers, leaders and champions for the equality agenda. Yet at the same time, Jane mentioned that it was tricky to get these organisations to look reflexively at their own working environment and to what extent they implement equality policies. Jane discussed the idea that some organisations don’t know how to implement these policies and shared some of the initiatives that UKRC are engaged with. This includes the SPIDER (STEM Professional Institutions Diversity and Equality Resources project) network and incentives such as the SET Fair Standard, which recognises good practice. The group discussed how their own organisations had engaged with these policies, discussing the values of initiatives such as job shares and the value of encouraging a wider working environment that valued flexibility to both men and women.

Integrating science, education, employment and gender policies is at times difficult to reconcile coherently. It was agreed that it is sometimes difficult or felt as inappropriate to raise gender concerns in wider policy areas. Jane gave the example of the Research Excellence Framework as an example of why it was important to push the gender issue: the proposed system pushes more emphasis to impact and mobility, which could inadvertently disadvantage women. At the same time, the UKRC felt that more emphasis on the work environment in the funding assessment criteria would provide an incentive for higher education institutions in incorporate equality policy into their employment practices. It was argued that with key policy papers such as higher ambitions and innovation nation largely ignoring gender equality issues, it was all the more important to proactively introduce these issues to the agenda, rather than waiting to respond.

Collaboration could be one way to achieve sustainable change. This would also solve the issue of reconciling gender policy in science with the wider agenda. Furthermore, the Government needs to encourage coherence between the legislation and stakeholders, as well as the disparate Government departments responsible for science and gender policies. The group agreed that a figurehead within Government might be useful to champion change, bringing together other interested individuals within Parliament e.g. All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in Science.

Policy Lunchbox is an informal network of individuals working in science policy. The next meeting, ‘Science Policy in Europe‘ is on Wednesday 27th April.

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The BES believes that better retention of women in ecology will lead to the creation of a more diverse, stimulating and talented research community, in an inclusive and positive working environment. Find out more about the Society’s mentoring scheme for women in ecology.