Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Chien-Shiung Wu, Katherine Johnson, Flossie Wong-Staal and Jennifer Doudna – just a few of the female scientists that through their foresight, dedication and tenacity have shaped scientific innovation and our understanding of the world. The value of their work may have been recognised during their lifetime but often the true magnitude of their contribution and the obstacles they faced have only become apparent as history is re-examined. Whilst much progress has been made in identifying and breaking down the barriers that women face in academia and research, there remains much to be done.
The 11th of February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science established to acknowledge the successes and contributions of women and girls in the STEM subjects, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. This event aims to to promote gender equality, inclusivity and to inspire current and future generations of female scientists.
Women remain under-represented in the STEM workforce
In the UK approximately 35% of STEM undergraduates are female, but they only comprise 24% of the STEM workforce. Breaking these numbers down into the constituent STEM subjects, women are least represented in the engineering and IT professions, comprising only 25% and 16% of the workforce respectively. Women are clearly capable of excelling in these careers, there are examples of female world leaders across the spectrum of STEM disciplines.
So why are female STEM graduates either not embarking upon, or leaving, these career paths, what hurdles or disincentives continue to be insurmountable and what can be done about them?
Very little room at the top in STEM
A successful and enduring career in STEM is demanding regardless of gender. Not only does it require intellectual distinction, but a plethora of other skills and circumstances must align. Amongst the most important, especially in academic research, is mentoring and support from senior, established academics to guide early career scientists through the myriad of challenges they face. A noteworthy record of publications in international, peer-reviewed journals is often a prerequisite for advancement. Also, a degree of familial support and either financial security or minimal caring responsibilities can help. The path from graduation to obtaining a tenured position is challenging for all, but those marginalised due to gender, race, disability, and socio-economic status, often face an uphill struggle to access resources and opportunities. Women’s identities often result in them facing multiple detrimental impacts.
Inequalities and barriers for women in STEM
Gender bias in the workplace can be particularly evident in STEM disciplines where systemic biases and barriers impact the career progression of women and often lead to a lack of retention of qualified women within organisations and research institutions. Currently, about 78% of scientists at the professor level are men. The potential for affinity bias, the unconscious tendency to gravitate toward and feel more comfortable with those we feel are similar, can cause gender inequality in rates of hiring and promotion. A randomised double-blind study showed that members of a faculty hiring committee rated male applicants significantly more competent and ‘hireable’ than identical female applicants. Additionally, this bias can impede career progression of female scientists as often in academia, application for funding is initially triaged within a research institute and only the applicant judged the most ‘competitive’ is then supported to apply to the funding body.
The prevalence of sexual harassment and bullying of women in STEM, particularly within academia, reflects a predominately male environment that perpetuates the normalisation of sexual harassment and bullying, often to protect ‘superstar’ employees. In the absence of robust reporting structures and minimal confidence that any punitive action will be taken, there is little incentive for attitudes and behaviours to change. Many research institutions and universities have implemented safe-guarding initiatives but instances of harassment and abuses of power within STEM workplaces remain all too common.
There exists a quantifiable inequality in pay between males and females in the STEM professions. Even when women have advanced to the position of a principal investigator (lab head) they are often appointed at lower pay grades than their male counterparts.
The challenges of being a mother in STEM
It has been suggested that the largest determinant in the under-representation of women in STEM careers is the choice to become a mother. In the high-paced, demanding STEM workplace, and especially post-graduation, there is often the misconception that being a mother and a scientist are mutually exclusive. To the extent that young women, and men, view the STEM careers as having “a pervasive workplace culture that frames motherhood, but not fatherhood, in opposition to legitimacy as a scientist or engineer”.
Moreover, for women that do progress to attain tenure in STEM, the effect of parenthood has a significant deleterious effect on career achievement and progression whilst fathers do not experience the same impact. A study examining gender disparity in the impact of parenthood in academia revealed that female scientists, perhaps unsurprisingly, experience a significant decrease in productivity after childbirth, but notably this reduction in productivity can last for years. This has been attributed to women bearing significantly more of the childcare and household work than men.
Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionally impacted women in STEM, with mothers, especially those with young children, being responsible for the majority of childcare resulting in reduced time available for research and fewer publications. It remains to be seen what the the longer-term effects on the careers of women in STEM are, however, it’s clear that women have shouldered the much of the COVID-19-related career disruption in the STEM disciplines.
Supporting women in STEM
In order to address many of the barriers faced by women in STEM, the SWAN ATHENA Charter was introduced in 2005 to support the advancement of women in STEM through recognising efforts to support gender and racial equality within higher education and research. Since 2011, in the UK, membership and adherence to the charter has been a requirement for applying for funding from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). However, it has been shown that narrow definitions of equality and inclusion are disproportionally benefitting white, middle class women.
Often initiatives to support women and promote their career advancement in STEM address perceived weaknesses in the individual and are geared towards changing their behaviours rather than addressing the shortcomings of a system where women are actively disadvantaged.
Changing entrenched systemic biases within STEM is a quest for the ages. While progress is being made, changes in parental leave policies are going some way to redress the balance, these policy initiatives are but a very small step in a positive direction. For young women and girls hoping to embark on a career in STEM the visibility and accessibility of women, and mothers, in leadership positions is essential. Also, the more easily addressed issues, such as pay disparities, should be tacked as a priority.
To break down the barriers faced by women and girls in STEM and address the enduring problems of gender inequality, fostering an environment where women feel equally valued and enabled, men and women need to work together – only then can lasting advances be realised.
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