What can be done to increase the number of women in science?

Last week the Common’s Science and Technology Committee released their report looking at women in STEM careers. Despite recognising the efforts the UK government has made in increasing the number of women in science, technology and maths careers, the report warns that there is still much progress to be made if women are to be better represented in this sector.

Currently, women only account for 13% of all UK STEM jobs. It is estimated, that if things are left as they are, it could take 50-80 years before gender equality is reached in the sector. Clearly, as the committee’s report suggests, further action needs to be taken to increase the representation of women in science. This is important for many reasons, including economic and business prosperity, and it can also result in more well-rounded research. As a more basic argument, there should be more women in science to satisfy gender equality.

The report focuses upon those women in academia and the common problems relating to where these women go at each progressive career step and what happens to prevent them from reaching senior academic positions. This phenomenon, known as the leaky pipeline, varies depending on subject and it can be difficult to understand all the drivers which can affect their progression. For example, in Chemistry a key issue regards retaining women throughout their career, whilst in engineering and physics, recruiting girls in the first place means that there is already a lower number of women in these subjects. With regards to ecology, the problem is also most likely due to retention of women rather than getting them interested in the first place.

So what can be done? There have been many government initiatives aimed to ensure greater representation of women (see report), although there are criticisms that there has been more effort placed on encouraging girls at school to take up STEM subjects, and not enough actions in place to encourage and support women to stay. The committee particularly voiced its concerns over the almost virtual halving of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills budget for the UK Research Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (which has now merged with WISE due to funding cuts), which provides much needed support for women higher up in the career ladder.

The committee called for the government to increase its efforts for retaining women in STEM careers, and encouraged that they should monitor the impact that this reduced funding could potentially have.  Higher Education Institutions (HEI) that undertake STEM research were also urged to increase their actions regarding this issue, and the report highlighted that the short term nature of contracts within these institutes could be very off-putting for many women. Joining schemes such as the Athena Swan Charter was seen as an area all HEI should involve themselves in. With regards to enabling women to progress whilst having a family, the committee called for a review to be undertaken looking at how to support women taking maternity leave and how to integrate back into the workforce.

Interestingly, the report also mentioned the steps that learned societies should do to address these issues. They called for an analysis to be undertaken to find out how more women can improve research findings within different STEM subjects, and generate guidance surrounding this. They also suggest learned societies should promote women role models who have successfully balanced their career whilst having a family, and offer mentoring and support networks at research group levels.

Here at the BES, we are committed to promoting diversity and equality within ecological science. We have successfully run mentoring schemes in the past and this should continue into 2014 to support women starting out or wanting to progress to the next level within ecology. Our recent Education Intern, Christina Ravient, undertook a three month study regarding issues relating to equality and diversity within ecology and the results of her study, including recommendations for the Society into the future, should be published later this Spring.