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?

Women are under-represented at the highest levels of many professions, and there are initiatives in other fields to promote women in the workplace, for example Women in Law, Women into Politics, and Women in Banking and Finance.  But do all these schemes do a good job?

While some women expressed the feeling that women should be able to compete with men on a level playing field, which is not the case when there are funding schemes available only to women, all of them agreed that the awards provide valuable acknowledgement of successful women in science. Another crucial asset of schemes promoting women in science is the emphasis on female role models.

The gender balance in science remains very skewed, so there was uncertainty among the women I spoke to about the effectiveness of the ‘women in science’ initiatives. However, there are visible effects of raising awareness of the lack of women in science. Career breaks and flexible working times are beginning to be reflected in grants and fellowship schemes (see a previous post for funding opportunities). The Athena Swan Charter rewards excellent employment practice, and has seen increases in the numbers of female faculty members in the university departments that subscribe to it. Additionally, there are schemes designed to help women back into the workplace after a career break, though currently they are not very common. However, it will take some time before we know if the current generation of young female researchers will stay in academia and climb to the most senior roles.

Image credit: Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

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