"We don't need more studies; we need action!" That was the view of one delegate at last week's Athena conference on New Research on Women, Science and Higher Education held at the Royal Institution in London. It was a sentiment that won approval from many of those present. Athena, the project set up with the aim of increasing the number of women in science, engineering, and technology departments in the U.K.'s universities, organised the meeting to review the current state of social science research into the vexed question of why women do so badly in science-based employment and to set the agenda for future research. But it was clear that the natural scientists--on the whole--are tired of being studied and frustrated with the slow rate of change.

Childless or Childfree?

Louisa Blackwell described the ambitious "Women's Scientific Lives" project, which uses census data to track women's employment following a science degree. At each census, for 1% of the population of England and Wales, records are linked to other information such as registers of births, marriages, and deaths, allowing researchers to zero in on minority populations.

Although 1% may be a large initial sample, once researchers start focussing on those women who have science qualifications, the numbers drop away rapidly, Blackwell pointed out. Despite this, and the fact that the most recent data available are from 1991 (the 2001 census data have yet to be processed), there have been some interesting findings. The project's finding that female scientists were less likely to have children and form relationships was pounced on by the press earlier this year. But Blackwell sounded a note of caution, pointing out that all graduates enter childbearing later and finish sooner than their less highly educated sisters. Nonetheless, "there seems to be some conflict between motherhood and staying in science or technology occupations," she said, with the data indicating a close correlation between women having children and leaving scientific careers. There is more childlessness among women in science and technology jobs than among graduates in non-science-based employment, but in turn this group is more childless than graduates in teaching and health-related employment. What is it about health and teaching occupations that makes them so family-friendly? Perhaps, suggested Blackwell, it is because these fields have had to rely on women to fill their posts. Given current anxiety over the falloff in the number of teenagers choosing to study science, "possibly the time has come for science."

Nevertheless, another delegate sounded a note of caution. Although she agreed that "research can be a substitute for action," a kind of displacement activity if you will, she warned that it was important to "proceed on the basis of real, hard evidence." And in her address to the meeting, Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK (formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals), admitted, "I think we all know how bad we've been ... at collecting the kind of analytical data [that allow us to make informed policy changes]."

Diane Bebbington, the Athena project's research officer, told those attending the meeting that she has recently completed a literature review of current research on women scientists in higher education (to be made available on the Athena Web site shortly, or by e-mail upon request). She has identified gaps in current knowledge, particularly information on how issues such as recruitment and retention of women vary between scientific disciplines. In addition, "data on the Ph.D. process differentiated by gender are sparse." For example, "do women experience supervision more negatively than men?" she asked. Both qualitative and quantitative data are needed, she suggests.

Engaging men, particularly senior men, was seen as critical by many participants. Male heads of departments are often very good at recognising problems in other people's departments, it was claimed, while simultaneously being convinced that everything is fine and dandy in their own. Developing some kind of forum where powerful men can be challenged to acknowledge the problems on their own doorstep was seen as a priority. Another way of ensuring that men in positions of authority are alert to issues of gender would be through proper management training. In a sector where promotion is on the basis of research rather than people skills, making professorial appointments conditional on undertaking management training could help, it was suggested.

Any Answers?

Conference participants raised two provocative questions:

If we know that women tend to fare rather badly in science employment, are we being irresponsible in encouraging girls and women to enter science?

and

In the last 100 years, science has been very successful. How much is that success dependent on the "masculine" culture of science? Is this culture, which is so off-putting to women, a necessary part of the success of the scientific enterprise? Are we jeopardising our very ability to continue to push back the frontiers of knowledge if we succeed in changing the culture to make it more female-friendly?

What do you think? Why not share your views in Next Wave's forum?

Poor management is not the only factor in the culture that makes many academic departments unattractive to women. Louise Morley, a social scientist at the Institute of Education, studies "micropolitics," or the "day-to-day struggles" that women face dealing with such male tactics as gossip, sarcasm, and alliance-building. These are "very difficult to mobilise around" she explained, because one is "never entirely sure of one's readings." The effect is obvious. "When we advertise a lectureship, almost no women apply," complained one scientist, despite the plethora of women in short-term postdoctoral contract positions. "It's not a problem with women," it was suggested, but rather "a problem with the job." Discovering how to make academic jobs more attractive to women was seen as key to moving more women into lectureships and from there into more senior positions. Such university board-level jobs "are horrible," said a woman who should know, who asserted that a lot of the work is still done on the golf course.

There are, then, still plenty of questions for social scientists to answer. But natural scientists, too, must be questioning if they want to see the status quo disrupted. "If we want to change the culture we have to constantly ask questions," said one senior scientist, which she admitted "can get a bit tiring." But although this "does put a burden on those people who are committed to doing the questioning," it is necessary in order to get male scientists to open their eyes to such issues as whether upper age limits on grants and awards discriminate disproportionately against women.

So it seems that, for the time being at least, progress for scientific women in higher education will continue to be slow. But, as Warwick said, "no step is too small to take." It may take a lot of tiny steps, but as long as the ones devised are practical and doable, in the end Warwick hopes to see the "real cultural change" which will allow every woman in higher education to reach her full potential.

*Editor's Note: Some of the discussion at this meeting took place under the Chatham House Rule, which means that, although we can report what was said, we are not allowed to reveal who said it.