stem cells in their environment

Athena Swan & women in science

29 October 2013
By Christine Weber

Most fields in academia have traditionally been male-dominated and still are, especially in science. Since the 1970s there is a growing recognition of the existence of gender inequalities and great efforts have been made to bridge the gender gap, with varying success among different disciplines. However, in 2013 the gap still exists in primarily those disciplines that are known as the STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) fields. This and other gender-related issues were the topics of Professor Evelyn Welch's talk at a recent Athena Swan event at King's College London.

One of the most celebrated female scientists: Marie Curie, not easy to spot in between the all-male intellectual elite back then (1911)

Professor Welch stated, that at times when women were still a minority in the lecture halls, it was assumed the problem would ultimately correct itself as more women reached higher positions that allowed them to shape their own academic environment. However, for decades this prediction has been far from reality. Even today, while women hold the majority in some departments in science, engineering and technology, 84.9% of the professorial staff are still male. Professor Welch also presented statistics about KCL's current situation. College-wide, the number of women is slightly higher (54.4%), but women are underrepresented in the school of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. Numbers drop substantially for female staff over 31 years of age. Women are a minority as readers and professors and a strong gender distribution by role is evident. Especially in life sciences, the major hold-up seems to be the transition from full-time junior to senior faculty and a serious lack of progression through academic ranks.

These issues are well-documented and one of the most persistent problems is that a substantial proportion of qualified women drop out of science already in early stages. A recent report revealed that only 12% of third year female PhD students in chemistry consider staying in academia due to what they perceive as insurmountable obstacles during a science career. Prospects aren't rosy indeed: among women it is a common perception that great sacrifice is a career requirement. Family plans are one frequently mentioned complication, as well as a continuing strong bias against women in job applications and generally unappealing job characteristics. More women than men regard academic careers as all-consuming, solitary and unnecessarily competitive. Finally, an apparent lack of female role-models who have mastered these barriers might tip the scales for some already discouraged researchers (although they certainly exist and I can highly recommend Fiona's collection of interviews with leading women in cell science). In short, the way women and men experience a career in STEMM research seems to differ drastically - and not in favour of the women.

These tendencies are alarming, in particular since they don't seem to resolve themselves. During times when science and innovation are seen as the most promising way out of the crises an abundant pool of highly educated and skilled science talents is indispensible. Losing half of the intellectual capital somewhere on the way because of gender inequalities cannot be in the interest of the Universities and governments which previously invested substantial amounts in their education.

In an approach to reverse this, the Athena Swan charter was initiated to advance gender equality and women's careers in the STEMM fields. It recognises that science cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of the whole population. Every institution that intends to join the charter will have to prove that it is taking action to address inequalities and discrimination in its working environment. Awards are handed out to institutions which have made progress in addressing certain cornerstones that are the guiding principles of the Athena Swan charter.

In light of the recent renewal of KCL's Athena Swan Bronze Award, the college is hosting a series of events about the topic. Everyone interested in the issue is strongly encouraged to attend. As one of AS's guiding principles rightly says: gender inequalities require commitment and action from everyone - in the same way as a balanced working environment will equally benefit both men and women. Because, to say it with Fiona's words, in the end it might be only "those [institutes] with a healthy representation of women that will flourish”.

Further reading

•  The Athena Swan charter and Athena Swan at King's College London

•  What does it take to recruit and retain senior women faculty? (Fiona Watt in eLife)

•  Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried (The Guardian)

•  Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? (NY Times)

•  Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap (Nature News Feature)

•  THE Gender survey of UK professoriate, 2013

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