Female Plant Scientists on ‘Women in Science’

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Published on: September 6, 2012
A snapshot of the Smithsonian Institute’s Women In Science archives

This post on ‘Women in Science’ is ghost written by several women working in science, either in research or in science policy. I asked them to give me their thoughts, and as some of them wanted to be anonymous, I collected the common ideas and put them into this blog post. Thank you to everyone who contributed.

Why are there so few women at the highest levels of academia, for example as Heads of School, Directors of Institutes, or Fellows of the Royal Society?

As in many other pieces on women in science, a common response to this question was that an academic career is not family friendly. Day-to-day working life is difficult to manage with a family as a very successful academic career involves unsociable hours and a huge workload. In fact, a study out last week showed that many scientists work all night and through weekends. For many reasons, women are more likely than men to see their families as a more important focus for their time and energy than their careers.

Two of the women I asked pointed out very practical problems of combining family life and research. Firstly, if a woman takes a career break for her children, when she returns to work she may be excluded from grants and fellowships for early career scientists, which set a maximum number of years from PhD graduation to be eligible for the funding. Secondly, a woman who takes ordinary maternity leave and returns to work straight away will probably find maintaining the same level of output as before her pregnancy difficult. Strength of publication record is important for senior scientific positions, so a drop and/or gap in publications caused by maternity leave and subsequent out-of-hours time devoted to a baby may delay or prevent her making applications for more senior positions.

A second theme, again commonly discussed and relevant whether a woman has family commitments or not, is that male dominance at the highest levels of academia is self-perpetuating. Some women, consciously or otherwise, are put off staying in research and aiming for the top positions by the very fact that there are few women at those high levels. Equally, women may not be recommended or headhunted for top positions, not maliciously but automatically, simply because they do not fit the norm.

As in many professions, in academia the lack of women in senior positions is partially due to more men than women forcing their way to the top. The scientists who contributed to this piece thought that women are less likely than men to self-promote, to ask for a promotion, or to apply for the top job. This is the feeling of successful women in other professions too. One of the women I asked felt that women are judged more harshly than men by men and women alike, being seen as aggressive or manipulative if they use the same methods as men to get to the top.

Do you think the programs and awards that encourage ‘women in science’ in some way are necessary, and doing a good job? (more…)

Links for Women in Science (and family men too)

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Published on: August 28, 2012
Some institutions which support women in science and family-friendly working practices

At the University where I did my PhD, male PIs far outnumbered female PIs in the School of Biological Sciences. The Head of School and all the Heads of Departments were male. The faculty lists of other universities show a similar story – and this is in life sciences, the science subject most dominated by girls at A-level. Gender balance among fellows of Royal Society is even more skewed, perhaps reflecting the wider scope of the Society, at 5% female.

These unbalanced ratios are not seen at school, university or even at post-doc level, so there is a time early in academic careers when more women than men leave academic research. The UK Resource Centre for Women in SET and the Royal Society of Chemistry commissioned a report to find out why. The report concluded that the lack of women in many areas of academia can seem isolating and off-putting; and an academic career demands a working life dictated by experiments and deadlines, with no room for part-time work or career breaks. The report also notes that both men and women are put off by the difficulties of life in academia, but more men than women are happy to make the sacrifices.

There are organisations and individuals calling for change, and providing support for female researchers at all stages of their careers. I have collected them below – feel free to get in touch if you know of any others.

Please note that many of these funds are available to men who require flexible working times and support for dependants. Most of them are not open now, but call for proposals annually or bi-annually. (more…)

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