Women in STEM careers – evidence sought by UK Parliament
The “leaky pipeline” is sometimes used to describe the continuous loss of women at consecutive career stages within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). These gradual losses reduce the numbers of women retained in STEM further education and work.
Thus begins the House of Commons call for evidence description on the Parliament website. It is an opportunity to voice the concerns of Women working in STEM, especially in the academe, surrounding issues of equal opportunity, pay, career progression and work-life balance. Issues that should ring true with many in the community, but sadly seem to affect women more than men. Minorities are a related issue, but not the subject of this particular call for evidence. The website text continues:
More young people of both genders are now studying STEM subjects up to GCSE but female participation starts dropping off at A-level. Climbing up the academic career ladder, women are increasingly underrepresented in STEM. A 2012 European Commission study found that around 42 per cent of UK academic staff are women but at the most senior research grade it is around 17 per cent, below the EU average.
It is interesting to pull in EU averages to the discussion. I just met with a friend and related my experiences communicating with UCL Women and UCL HR to provide evidence to this call, and found myself in fact looking back on personal experiences of being a STEM academic in various EU countries, with the ‘burden’ of childcare etc. I quite soon started to view my other EU country experiences as ‘privileged’ compared to the women in the UK. Exactly: Women in the UK, not just women in STEM.
It’s not just about putting more money into initiatives such as the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships, it’s mainly about tackling the subtle biases against female candidates – and not just candidates or students but colleagues.. How do we change perception? It is a long way away, I think, for a diverse country like the UK. But we are one of the more tolerant in so many respects, why not when it comes to (more!) women having careers and less caring and household responsibilities? Is it all about privilege, like I heard a famous hockey player say about continuing: “It’s a decision that will most likely come by itself – another winter of hauling my boys to hockey practice? Naw, I’d rather be the one practicing myself” (assumption: wife hauls kids if he is away). Of course it’s not all about money – but if it’s about whose earnings count, how about putting a price tag on daddy time or household chores? Unpaid work it’s (rightly) called in academic terms.
We should tackle the hidden biases in our own lives, and do our very best to propagate good practice onto the workplace. It’s ultimately about perceptions and attitudes, isn’t it?