By Dr Claire McNulty

24 July 2015 - 10:51

Women are consistently under-represented in leading positions in science, despite often making up more than 50 per cent of the undergraduate population. Image © James Glossop (British Council).
'Women are consistently under-represented in leading positions in science.' Photo ©

James Glossop / British Council

About a month after Professor Tim Hunt made his now infamous comments about women in science, the debate about his resignation is still raging. The British Council's Director of Science, Dr Claire McNulty, takes this as an opportunity to look forward.

Sexism in science is nothing new: I have been on the receiving end a few times – among others, from a PhD student who told me in all seriousness that men are simply better than women at science, and a professor who patiently explained to me that the fact there are more women in top positions in science in Portugal was a contributing factor to why ‘the science there is not as good’, which is obviously nonsense.

More publicly, Professor Tim Hunt’s ill-considered comments at a science journalism conference in Korea brought the issue of women in science back into the limelight. No matter what you think of the Tim Hunt affair, it's time we looked at some of the positive measures institutions can take to combat sexism in science.

Make decisions based on merit rather than gender

It's a really simple thing, but institutions still get it wrong. Around the world, women are consistently under-represented in leading positions in science, despite often making up more than 50 per cent of the undergraduate population. It’s been shown in several studies that men and women are, consciously or unconsciously, biased against women in science, whether it comes to getting a job or having a research article accepted by a journal, and that blind peer reviews would favour increased representation of female authors.

This can start at an even earlier age. There was a report by the Institute of Physics looking at whether girls would go into physics at A-level, and one of the biggest factors - statistically - was whether they went to a girls' school or not. Girls at single-sex schools would be 2.4 times more likely to continue with physics than co-ed students. The report commented that there is ‘something about doing physics as a girl in a mixed setting that is particularly off-putting, in comparison with the other sciences.’

It's clear that things can be done differently, however. In our FameLab International final (a global science communication competition), five out of the nine finalists were women. All of them are scientists and got to the finals through merit and the ability to communicate good science content with clarity and charisma.

Use mentors and role models to encourage girls

The passion that the FameLabbers (as we call the FameLab contestants) have for science is a great force to encourage more girls to follow a career in science, and we have seen first-hand how powerful this is. We were told by a teacher in Greece that she was able to persuade the parents of two girls to keep them in school after they turned 14, simply because of their involvement with our SchoolsLab project, which uses FameLabbers as mentors for school student project teams.

Mentor systems, in which female role models are willing to share their experiences with female scientists, are clearly quite important and should be recognised. In the UK, the Athena SWAN accreditation awards institutions that are committed to equality. They have to put certain things in place to get bronze, silver or gold – including, for example, mentorship schemes, unconscious bias training, support for parents and carers, and so on.

Track your gender record and tweak your language

We're in the first phase of evaluating the applications for the Newton Fund applications, and we're going to track the gender of applicants, first to understand what the stats are and then see how we can encourage more women to apply in future rounds.

Some of it might have to do with how you phrase a call. In 2013, only 39 per cent of candidates who were successful in applying for our Researcher Links initiative, which gives opportunities to researchers to have an international experience through workshops and short travel grants, were women. When, a year later, we included a more explicit clause about additional support for childcare and made multiple, shorter trips possible instead of one long trip, that figure went up to 50 per cent. Although we can't say for sure that this was the cause for the increase, it could have been a contributing factor.

Build support for women into your programmes and structures

One simple way to find out what you can do for women in science is simply to ask what they'd like changed, as the director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne did. Changes can even start from the very simple, such as holding meetings only during school hours, when women, who are still the main bearers of childcare duties, can attend.

Another thing institutions can do to help women, and men, with childcare duties – and this is much more widespread nowadays – is to allow employees to work from home on certain tasks, like writing articles or funding applications. Every scientist can work from home, and even going into a lab can be flexible. Lab scientists are used to doing things at funny hours (for example, because the cells need feeding at midnight on a Sunday), which can be quite convenient in some ways.

It was also a good move from the previous UK government to introduce shared parental leave and pay in April 2015, which allows fathers to take up a greater role in childcare. I guess the question still arises about how that's viewed and whether men are being supported and encouraged to take that up. Three of the men in my team benefit from flexible working patterns, and thereby support their partners to succeed in their own careers. My own husband takes on his share of looking after our children – and both he and the children benefit from this. We must ensure environments where men are not belittled for such choices.

Change the culture, even if it takes a long time

It was a very long time until the Royal Society (the UK’s national academy of science) accepted female fellows. The Royal Society has been around since the 1660s and most of that time, they didn't have women fellows – not, in fact, until 1945. There are so many examples like that, even in the last 100 years, when sometimes women scientists would lose their academic positions if they got married. This is now unheard of - people have accepted the change, at least in the UK (for the most part).

There’s a lot more to be done to ensure that women get treated equally, in science or any other male-dominated profession, and so we have to continue fighting the good fight against sexism wherever it occurs – we are certainly not there yet!

We currently provide, with Vodafone, scholarships for 300 girls in Ghana to study maths and science.

You can also find more science schemes supported by the British Council, including links to application information.

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