Women in science. What have we got ourselves into?

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Chemistry womanA guest blog by Gillian Pepper, a PhD student in the Newcastle University Institute of Neuroscience

As a woman attempting to begin her research career I often find myself asking, “What have I got myself into?” And it would seem that I am not alone. Despite various attempts to increase the number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers in the UK, only 17 percent of STEM professors are female. According to the Fawcett Society, the under-representation of women in STEM occupations, which are comparatively highly paid, accounts for a large portion of the overall gender gap in pay.

This issue has not gone unnoticed. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee recently released a report on women in STEM, which lamented the lack of improvement in this situation over the past decade. A recent article in the Guardian by Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, highlighted how women in STEM are affected by unconscious gender biases and called for bias training to correct the problem. Dame Donald also wrote an article for The Times Higher Education supplement, highlighting the fact that women are less successful than men when it comes to securing grants from Research Councils.

On Friday, I attended a Parliamentary Outreach event organised by Newcastle Science City. It discussed this very problem and was titled, “Women and STEM – How can more women be encouraged to develop careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths?”

There was a panel of expert witnesses:

  • The Chair, Pat Glass MP, of the Commons Education Committee
  • Chi Onwurah MP, our Newcastle Central MP, who studied engineering at University
  • Professor Judith Rankin, who chairs the Newcastle University Diversity Committee
  • Beccy Earnshaw, Director of Schools North East
  • Dr Maxine Mayhew, Group Commercial Director, Northumbrian Water

The question they were asked to address:

“How can more women be encouraged into, and retained in, science?”

This question isn’t easily answered. However, the women on the panel made a valiant attempt. They discussed the perceived cultural barriers for women entering traditionally male dominated sciences such as physics and engineering. They discussed the difficulties presented by the notion that apprenticeships are “a boy thing.” They also discussed the challenge of the instability of life as an early career scientist, which is thought to disproportionately disadvantage women.

The instability issue was something I could easily identify with. As a female PhD student, seeking to enter a career in academic research, I have clearly already been grabbed by the excitement of science. My school teachers did a good job there. However, I do still wonder whether I will be “retained”. I love my research. I am really quite passionate about it. I believe it to be important, worthwhile and useful to society. Nonetheless, I sometimes question the sanity of attempting to continue to work in research. My reasons for this generally tally with those identified by the Science and Technology Select Committee report on women in STEM.

Worry number one is about short term contracts. Most research, particularly at the early career stage, is funded by short term grants. This is practical from the point of view of funding bodies, who must continually work to ensure that they are investing their money in the most productive researchers and projects. However, for early career researchers, this means always working on one thing whilst worrying about what you will do next. For me, it means writing fellowship applications whilst also writing my thesis and, of course, as many publications as possible (publications do win prizes after all). When I consider that the quality of my work may take a hit, because I am juggling all of these things at once, I find myself asking, “What have I got myself into?” I am working my socks off, in order to earn the privilege of continuing to work my socks off! From this perspective, a permanent job with 9-5 hours begins to seem rather appealing. I can really see how women become disadvantaged at this stage. If I were a primary caregiver, a role which it is still more commonly fulfilled by women than men, quitting academic research for a more stable career option would seem like an excellent idea. In addition, if I were a caregiver, I might not feel able to put in the extra hours at evenings and weekends to work on grant applications, to polish my CV or to do those voluntary activities which earn brownie points with grant-making bodies.

Challenge number two, when it comes to applying for funding, is timing. I started organising myself to apply for fellowships back in December 2013 – just two years into my PhD. Having done this, I hope, will enable me to put in a fellowship application in June. However, if (and this is a big if), I am successful in gaining funding, I won’t be able to take it up until February 2015 – over a year after I started planning the application. My PhD stipend will cease in September 2014. This leaves me with an unavoidable 6 month gap during which I must find temporary work, or survive without pay. Why? Because research council fellowship application schemes only run once a year and it takes 8+ months to process the applications and make the awards. This means that I face a period of certain unemployment, during which I will await the uncertain outcome of an extremely competitive funding process. I am planning as best I can to avoid this unemployment period, but nothing is guaranteed. Again, were my priority to provide for a family, or elderly parent, I would be considering quitting about now. Is this really a problem for women only? Not at all. It will be a struggle for many people, regardless of their gender. Indeed, it may also contribute to social inequalities among those retained in science. People who have fewer savings, or more debt, may not be able to withstand periods of unemployment between short term contracts. Young people from working class backgrounds are already underrepresented in higher education. It makes me sad to think that they may also be forced out of their potential academic careers because they don’t have the resources to buffer themselves against the financial insecurity that typifies such a career choice.

Concern number three is the pressure to move. Research funding bodies are keen on research fellows moving abroad in order to gain experience in new labs. This is intended to strengthen international research networks and to fuel innovation, but is it compatible with having a family? Not really. Is it compatible with good mental health and a sense of stability? Not for everyone. Some people deal well with change, new cultures and living far away from friends and family. For these people, moving abroad to broaden their research horizons may be a great idea. However, there will be excellent scientists who do not fit this mould. Will they be disadvantaged? I cannot answer this with my limited knowledge. However, I am consistently told, that my fellowship applications are more likely to be funded, if I propose to spend 6 months or more working abroad. Again, if I had children, this might be enough to make me want to give up. I don’t have a family, and I do find the idea of working abroad appealing. However, I do question its practicality. A 2010 report by the Wellcome Trust, which evaluated its postdoctoral fellowship schemes said that, “Some Fellows found the logistics and administration of moving abroad challenging … a few felt it was a distraction from their research.” In the same report, the Wellcome Trust concluded that they should ease the pressure on Fellows to move labs and form international collaborations.

What can be done? I have written about the challenges which I perceive to be important at my stage of a scientific career. Now I would like to mention the things which, in my opinion, should be done to lessen those challenges.

Research institutes have some power to address the worries I have discussed. Professor Judith Rankin, of the Newcastle University Institute for Health and Society, spoke on the panel at the Parliamentary Outreach event. Her institute has a supportive approach. They pool funds in order to help them to bridge researchers between contracts. It is this kind of thinking which made them the first Newcastle University institute to earn a silver Athena Swan award (a recognition of good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting academic women in STEM).

Funding bodies have the most power to address the worries of career instability and pressure to move. I have already mentioned that the Wellcome Trust were sufficiently enlightened to ease up the pressure upon applicants to move. The Wellcome Trust offers an example of a friendlier funding system in other respects too. Rather than having one postdoctoral fellowship application round per year, with a long lead time, they have two rounds per year, with a rapid-fire preliminary application round. This makes things much easier for prospective fellows. The staged application process means that applicants are not encouraged to make a full time job of writing up a research proposal that is unlikely to be funded. Allowing two rounds of applications per year, means that the funding gaps, for successful applicants, between PhD and postdoc will be shorter. I believe that, if other funding bodies were to take a similarly person-centred approach, this would help to reduce gender inequalities in STEM.

If you are a woman who is seeking a scientific career and reading this has made you think, “What have I got myself into?” please don’t despair. The women who spoke on the panel at the Women in STEM event are fine examples of the fact that women can, and do, thrive in scientific careers. As women in STEM, I think there are several things we can do. Firstly, we can actively engage with the issues we face. By engaging with Government consultations and with Parliamentary Select Committees, we can make recommendations that could improve matters for ourselves and others. We can also work with learned societies, unions and our research organisations to ensure that our voices are heard.  Secondly, we can prepare ourselves for the career challenges that we know we may face. For example, an unwillingness to self-promote can hold women back. The solution? We must learn to be comfortable with selling ourselves and our skills. So polish that CV, call up the careers service and ready yourself for those interviews. Knowing the challenges we face means that we can prepare. We can seek support from our institutes, we can start looking for temporary work to plug those gaps. Forewarned is forearmed – until things change, which I sincerely hope they do.

This was a guest blog by Gillian Pepper, a PhD student in the Newcastle University Institute of Neuroscience.


One thought on “Women in science. What have we got ourselves into?

    […] recently wrote a guest blog on women in science for the Newcastle Researchers Blog, which is run by the Newcastle University […]


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