Men still need to do more to support women in STEM

There are still not enough women reaching the upper end of the STEM career ladder. Athene Donald urges us to fix the problem, not the women

Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics and Churchill College Master at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Royal Society

That women fall off the STEM career ladder more than men do is hardly a secret.

Although the numbers of women starting STEM degrees has risen over the years – particularly in the biological sciences, much less so in engineering or computing – estimates for how long it will take for parity to be reached range from decades to a century or so.

Not exactly encouraging if you believe, as I do, that discovery and innovation are most successful when teams are diverse in constitution. The mounting evidence shows this is as true for research in the lab as for the bottom line of a company with a diverse board.

Beyond the individual

What goes wrong? First of all, it is clear that the problem does not simply lie with individual women. Nor does the solution. My book Not Just for the Boys: Why we need more women in science, published last month, explores the evidence of how women have fared in the past and what the current state of play looks like. I argue that the problems are largely cultural and systemic and start essentially at birth.

How parents, teachers and society collectively interact with toddlers and young children is easily deduced from the messages emblazoned on their clothes. Children pick up social cues from an early age, even if they are non-verbal, and T shirts that stress “Love” for girls, but say “Adventure is out there” for boys – of course appropriately coloured in pink and blue respectively – convey a message that’s easily internalised about what is “gender-appropriate” behaviour.

In the STEM classroom too, boys are more likely to receive attention and to be encouraged. The (English) national curriculum contains remarkably few examples of female scientists to make a young girl feel it is a place where she might fit in and Ofsted analysis of work experience shows a girl is more likely to be despatched to the local hairdresser or nursery than a garage or construction company. Evidence from the Institute of Physics showed that girls were two to three times more likely to progress to Physics A Level in single sex state schools compared with coeducational ones, suggesting – counter to what some headteachers postulate – the issues lie as much in an individual school’s ethos and environment as in the student.

Metrics are not objective

The situation at university may be little better and, as the numbers of women drop off at each successive stage, the feeling of being “other”, of not belonging, may simply get more acute. I find it surprising that apparently objective metrics – how long a paper takes in the editorial process and the extent of revisions required by referees, or the number of citations received, as well as the success rate for grants and their size – show strong gender differences. Does that mean the problem is all the woman’s fault, or are we all, both men and women, affected by biases we fail to spot?

As Laura Bates says in the title of her book describing a far wider societal context, “fix the system not the women”. It is not reasonable to expect the women, the “victim”, to do all the heavy lifting of a system that is biased against them. In many a university department proud of its work for an Athena Swan award, it is the women who typically put in the many, many hours required to get an award. It is the women who typically spend time arguing for a workplace nursery or put in extra hours to make themselves available to students. What has been termed “academic housework” gets dumped more often on a woman’s shoulders, whereas the man is likely to be asked to sit on the committees that assigns space, or studentships, or make other decisions with direct research consequences.

Just recently I was talking to a female professor whose appraisal consisted of asking her how many (more) committees she might join within her department. When she participated in an appraisal for a more junior man the conversation – from her male colleague – was all about what more the appraisee could do to hone his candidature for the Royal Society. Nothing about committee work or general departmental good citizenship. Anecdote not data, true, but telling.

It is more than time that men accepted their responsibilities to ensure departments really are free of bias across the board. That support for young women also translates into support for those more senior, so that leadership does not remain an overwhelmingly male preserve. The proof of the pudding will be in the numbers. In ten years’ time, will we actually see that the numbers of women at senior levels match those at PhD? I fear not, but it behoves all of us to work towards that goal.

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