Teacher PointingAs my background is as a researcher in the biological sciences, I keep a keen eye on developments in that area – and sometimes there are disappointingly few.

Over the years I have seen the debate on gender in the workforce occasionally make a blip on the ratings and I’m pleased to see that many universities are beginning to engage with the Athena Swan  commitment to supporting women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM). There is so much to do to change words and aspirations into real equality in the working environment of universities and research institutions.

Have a read of what follows and do let me know if things are any different in your line of work.

At undergraduate level the number of women participating in higher education is increasing – the numbers of female students in medical and veterinary colleges in the UK are averaging above 60% of the total number students, above 80% in some cases. Even in the physical sciences and mathematics, around 40% of students are female. (Kirkup, G. et al (2010). Women and men in science, engineering and technology: the UK statistics guide 2010. Bradford: the UKRC)
Proportions of male and female academics, 2002 and 2010
The graph to the right shows the average figures across Europe in both 2002 and 2010. More women start as undergraduates.  When you look at PhD level, there is close to gender parity where the blue/purple and brown lines in the graph cross showing approximately equal numbers of women to men PhD students across all subjects (maybe with a slightly higher number of women registered for PhDs in biological sciences with more men in the physical sciences or engineering). The rate of attrition amongst women in research and higher education after PhD level is quite breathtaking as the blue/purple line plummets. In the UK, it’s worse. More women start as undergraduates or PhD students, fewer women finish as senior Lecturers or Professors in the system and in 8 years, there’s been little progress to celebrate. If you look at the percentage of women as full time staff members across the STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology, Maths) subjects, women are 50% PhD students across all subjects, 30% of postdoctoral researchers, 26% of Lecturers, 18% Senior Lecturers, 9% of Professors.

So what’s happening here as women disappear from the ranks of the more senior grades?

It seems there could be three possible reasons for this which are:
1) women aren’t good enough to achieve the higher grades
2) women don’t want the more senior positions
3) there is a bias that prevents women successfully achieving promotion.

Are women good enough? I’d like to think we can dismiss option 1) at the outset. We can debate whether men and women think differently and have different approaches but there is no valid evidence to show that women  are less intelligent and, as many people are aware, girls often outperform boys at all levels of assessment during school.

So do women want promotion?
This is a really tricky question in my opinion.

I’d say yes, but… My experience of working in universities and of coaching female staff suggests  many, maybe most women really do want to stay in research, they want to work in Academia or Higher Education, make a mark, contribute and build a reputation. I’d even go so far as to say that a majority of my female colleagues working in universities and research institutes aspire to the positions and responsibilities of Senior Lecturer and Professorial grades.

The glitch in the plan is that many of them don’t want the completely skewed work-life balance that seems to be a requirement to perform in these posts. Maybe even more women feel unable to put in the long and arduous hours that are required to get research results, supervise research teams and all the other parts of this complex role of successful senior researcher AT THE SAME TIME as taking a lead role in supporting a partner, keeping a home and raising a family.

Now at this point I know I’m stepping out into treacherous waters.

Does a woman support her partner? I think the answer is yes, particularly when that partner is male. While there are always wonderful exceptions to the rule, the research suggests women have 60% of the domestic responsibilities, whether that’s doing the cooking or cleaning, washing and ironing or even deciding what to eat and what to shop for in the supermarket. Where children are involved, it’s usually the mother who has greatest responsibility for child-care and all that entails, keeping clean clothes to hand, preparing packed lunches, arranging times to meet with teachers, medical appointments or making arrangements if the child is too sick to go to school. It’s not that men or fathers don’t do this stuff, they just do less of it and the truth is, even if it’s not difficult, it sure is time-consuming!

I know you can say it’s a choice the woman makes – however when a couple decide to have children I honestly wonder if either of them truly realise the impact this will have on their lives. Is there the sneaking suspicion that, because we’re so much better prepared, we’ll find a way to make it work better…

It’s been my observation that the impact of childcare on a woman’s availability for work is usually  greater than the impact on her male partner. A woman always has a choice to say “No” and to leave the kids to someone else, but – whether it’s nature or nurture I can’t say – the mother instinct in them usually means that the work is compromised to a greater extent than the childcare.

So, women do want promotion but they don’t want promotion at the expense of not looking after their children.

We all know that this isn’t an “either or” situation. The truth is it’s not a “both and” situation either and slowly, the time, effort and energy required to be a good mother detracts from the time, effort and energy needed to be a good researcher who is able to compete on the national and international stage and this means their entry into the most senior posts is compromised.

Now this brings me onto point number 3) and just in case you’ve got lost in this plot, we were looking at three possible reasons for the rapid loss of women from more senior posts being:
1) women aren’t good enough to achieve the higher grades
2) women don’t want the more senior positions
3) there is a bias that prevents women successfully achieving promotion.

The answer to point 3) is also yes, there are blocks to women’s promotion and progression. Despite all the legislation in place, women are not on a level playing field when it comes to promotion. I suspect that there may be pockets of outright discrimination though thankfully far fewer than there used to be.

Nowadays I think gender discrimination is much more subtle, probably non-conscious for the most part and the scary thing is that women are biased against women as much as men are! If you’d like to see the evidence for this you’ll have to read the next blog entry.

Until then, do share your thoughts, whether you have experience from within the Higher Education sector or beyond, I’d love to hear from you.