A couple of months ago I was asked to give evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee as part of their enquiry into Women and STEM. What they wanted to know was why there was still a problem for women in achieving senior levels in STEM academic careers. Having recently led the OU’s successful submission for an Athena SWAN Bronze Award and having researched and written about gender and STEM for many years, I was asked to represent the OU and discuss what universities can do to help alleviate this situation.
On the day it felt rather intimidating entering the hallowed corridors of power but I had arranged to meet a colleague from the OU’s Communications, Government and External Affairs Department, who was able to give a thorough briefing of what to expect, as she had worked previously in political roles. Perhaps fittingly, the session was held in the Thatcher Room, (the Iron Lady had herself been a chemistry graduate, albeit one who chose a non-STEM career). The MPs had sent a list of some of the topics they were interested in, which was helpful, and as the session unfolded and our discussion flowed, I must say I started to enjoy it!
What did I tell the politicians? First, we know that women drop out or leave STEM academic work at several key points. Fewer women who complete PhDs move on to research jobs and for most research careers the early years are characterised by a string of short-term contracts until (with a bit of luck and a lot of perseverance) a permanent lectureship is hopefully secured. This period of time, when there is intense competition for grants and pressure to publish papers, often coincides with the time when many women are likely to become mothers; that is, in their late 20s and early 30s. Even a short break at this crucial career stage can make it difficult to recover momentum and this is the point at which many women either stop progressing or opt out and move into other sectors.
One of the things that I emphasised to the politicians was that academia isn’t that different from other sectors. Women don’t reach the top of many professions, mainly because of the way work is organised and the expectations of long hours that mean anyone with a life outside work is seen to be less than fully committed to their job.
Universities can and should learn from what these other organisations are doing. A study* that I carried out recently, about women engineers in global engineering and technology companies, showed how the creative thinking and co-operation of managers can help women to accelerate their careers when they return from taking a career break. What is clear is that enabling women to sustain a career as well as their caring roles (whether for children or elders), requires a culture change and serious commitment from the whole organisation to make that happen. Simple things, like holding meetings within core hours so that parents can attend can be a start, plus giving women encouragement and advice about what they need to do to get promoted and the chance to achieve those things. For STEM women in academia that means having enough time to get on with their research and publish papers and there are some good examples of universities that are already doing this for women returning from maternity leave.
At the OU we are doing quite well in implementing such measures – we have a higher than average proportion of women academics across the whole university, although fewer in the STEM subjects. We have a range of career routes which enable women to ramp on and off more easily than in some universities (staff tutors and ALs). We also have good examples of men who have achieved career progression while working part-time and taking on caring roles. But there is still a lot more we can do and the Athena SWAN action plan is guiding us in making institutional changes.
The Select Committee is due to publish its report soon, and I’m keen to see what policy measures they will be proposing. But in the mean time, if you want to know more, you can view the recording and transcription of the whole session.
*Herman C. and Lewis S. (2012) Entitled to a sustainable career? Motherhood in science, engineering and technology Journal of Social Issues 68 (4). Available from: http://oro.open.ac.uk/31579