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Women in Science and Engineering Research Project



5.1 A wide range of reasons have been suggested to account for under-representation. This review outlines some of the explanations that have been posited, including factors in relation to experiences in schools, universities, academia, work cultures and employment structures. The factors are discussed below in the chronological order that women are likely to experience them in their careers to illustrate the cumulative nature of these problems.

Science in schools

5.2 There is a wide literature on female participation in science at all levels of schooling. Schooling and early life experiences emerge as key areas in which ideas about science are formed ( EU report, Sanders 2005, Roger and Duffield, 2000). This is also evident in the gendered pattern of subject uptake at university level raising questions as to the potential importance of the school curriculum and careers guidance in schools and their potential role in motivating male and female children to study certain subjects ( HESA, 1999-2009) (see the position of schools in the 'policy intervention map' later). Research has examined these patterns and looked for their causes, for instance concerning the role of the media via children's TV programmes ( UKRC, 2008). Schooling thus emerges as a key area to which policy should be directed (Bagilhole et. al., 2008). Detail about the influence of education and the history and evaluation of policy in education can be found in Phipps (2008).

5.3 It is also instructive to consider the literature that identifies particular Scottish dimensions to the situation in education. There is a small literature on gender and science education in Scotland. For example, work on the comparatively high uptake of physics in Scottish schools highlights points at which intervention could be targeted in order to improve female participation in physics (Reid, 2003). The points at which male and female pupils lost interest in physics differed, and early secondary school was of particular importance to girls (Larios et. al., 2009). Other works discuss female engagement with technology in Scottish schools (Murdoch, 1997).


5.4 These problems continue at university level. Research cited by Cronin, Foster and Lister found that male lecturers tended to treat women differently than men in terms of questions asked, time allowed to respond to questions, interruptions, response to questions, and various other behaviours which, although small individually, could add up to significant differences in classroom experience (Cronin, Foster and Lister, 1999). Research from the United States also reinforced this, indicating the subtle and cumulative nature of these differences in treatment (Sanders, 2005). Cronin and Roger also identified negative attitudes from male peers and lecturers as a factor in dissuading women from persisting in SET (Cronin and Roger, 1999). UKRC research on the experiences of women in built environment courses in higher education found that although the majority expressed positive opinions, 25% reported feeling isolated in all male settings and feeling a need to "prove themselves" in everyday situations ( UKRC, 2008, p7).

5.5 Teaching and learning methods in universities can also have an impact (Cronin and Roger, 1999). Narrowness of course materials and male focussed examples had been highlighted from the 1970s onwards as problems for women in science (Blickenstaff, 2005, Cronin and Roger, 1999). These can vary between subjects, with some subjects having more of this type of problem. However, academia has often tended to locate the problem outside its boundaries, blaming wider employment issues or pre-university education for the problems faced by women in SET (Bagilhole et. al., 2008).

Scientific cultures in university and the workplace

5.6 Scientific culture also emerges as a key area of concern and study. Many pieces of research found that women find the culture of SET departments off-putting, and that this has significant impact on their career aspirations and choices (Cronin, Foster and Lister, 1999, Sappleton and Takruri-Rizk, 2008, Blickenstaff, 2005). Negative stereotypes such as the "geek" stereotype for computing were also posited as reasons why women were deterred from pursuing certain subjects (Sanders, 2005). Although these factors are not cited directly as reasons why women may choose to leave science, and in fact may be seen to make women more determined to persevere, the cumulative effects of negative, rude or uninviting cultures can be seen to undermine desires to persist in SET (Cronin, Foster and Lister, 1999).

5.7 Negative workplace cultures have been seen as a reason for the under-representation of women in SET careers. Much of the research concerns academia (Larios et. al., 2009). The hegemonic masculine culture of SET workplaces can help to explain why there has been so little progress in the impact of equalities policy despite the high uptake of these policies in SET organisations (Sappleton and Takruri-Rizk, 2008). These cultures are able to accommodate equal opportunities but are not able to implement them (Sappleton and Takruri-Rizk, 2008).

5.8 Research has also highlighted sexism in the workplace. Bagilhole et. al. conclude that in SET, women are regarded as women first and professionals second (Bagilhole et. al., 2008). This was displayed by both men and women in terms of language, humour, style and appearance and usually worked to undermine women's professional status. Other research discusses the subtle and non-visible nature of this discrimination (Sappleton and Takruri-Rizk, 2008). Women tended to deal with such challenges by changing their behaviour and managing their appearance, as challenging the culture risked further alienation (Bagilhole et. al., 2008). Other research has pointed to the effects of all male cultures on women's participation, and on the exclusion from informal networks occurring in some SET organisations (Sappleton and Takruri-Rizk, 2008).

5.9 It has been suggested that women adapt to masculine workplace cultures and become "acculturated" (Larios et. al., 2009). This leads them to deny the influence of gender in the workplace (Bagilhole et. al., 2008). This means that increases in the number of women in certain areas will not necessarily lead to cultural change as coping strategies co-opt women into existing cultures, and these approaches are often individualistic (Bagilhole et. al., 2008).

5.10 While the extent to which cultures could be deliberately contested is under debate, Bagilhole et. al. concluded that without significant change scientific workplace cultures would remain problematic (Bagilhole et. al., 2008). These workplace cultures have not changed much over the past twenty years (Bagilhole et. al., 2008). Given the gendered nature of many workplace cultures in SET it has been suggested by some that encouraging women to enter these fields is irresponsible (Bagilhole et. al., 2008).

Science in academia from the position of an employee

5.11 Research on science in academia provides some particular reasons why women leave this type of SET career. Geographical mobility can be of particular concern in academia as there can be expectations that in order to progress, researchers should be mobile. In couples where both partners are pursuing a career in science it can be difficult to find job opportunities in the same area for both people (Bebbington, 2001, Larios et. al., 2009). Evidence from the United States shows that female scientists were more likely to be married to a male scientist than vice versa and the age difference in couples was often such that the male partner was older and more senior. For this reason the mobility of female scientists was disproportionately affected (Wolfinger et. al., 2008).

5.12 Some studies show the impact of child-bearing and career breaks on women in science within academia. The need for an ongoing research record can disadvantage those who take career breaks for whatever reason, disadvantaging women with childcare responsibilities. The constraints of family responsibilities and childcare could also impact on career mobility (Larios et. al., 2009). Senior female academics were also more likely to be childless than their male colleagues.

5.13 The problem of returning to SET after a career break is highlighted by research. The pace of change in SET has been identified as a cause of skills becoming rapidly obsolete, meaning that those who take a career break find it difficult to re-enter the sector at all, and also difficult to re-enter at the level which they left.

5.14 It was also found that women were often working below their qualification level (Glover and Fielding, 1999). This pattern can be found even at the start of women's careers, and does not emerge solely among women returning to science. Under-utilisation of skills was thus found to be a significant concern within SET.

Employees and promotion

5.15 Issues related to ideas about the desired characteristics and behaviours of the ideal employee have also been suggested as a cause of under-representation of women in scientific careers. The ideal of the perfect scientist often includes aspects and behaviours which are generally coded as male, setting up a fundamental inconsistency between femininity and science (Bagilhole et. al., 2008, Ellis, 2003). The business based argument can also put pressure on women to fit into existing cultural models rather than challenge existing assumptions (Bagilhole et. al, 2008). Deviation from a groups' collective gender orientation and accepted behaviours could affect the way an individual was seen to "fit in" to a team, and affect their progression in their career (Larios et. al., 2009).

5.16 The perception of the ideal SET employee as male can put additional pressures on women. Several studies have identified reluctance among many female scientists to present themselves as pushy or overly masculine (Sappleton and Takruri-Rizk, 2008). The difficulties of overcoming these problems mean that women often construct particular professional personas which can inadvertently hamper their career progression (Sappleton and Takruri-Rizk, 2008).

5.17 A lack of senior female employees in various areas of SET employment has been suggested as a cause of under-representation. The lack of role models in senior posts in some industries, in this case construction, was posited as a reason for poor female participation in these areas ( UKRC 2010, UKRC, 2006). Evidence on the influence of role models can be ambivalent. Studies from the US found that the mentors could be of influence in encouraging women to pursue certain careers, but found little evidence for the influence of role models (Sanders, 2005). The question of role models can also be investigated in relation to issues of the "perfect employee". Where women who have succeeded in science have done so by conforming to the image of the stereotypical male scientist then the role models available to women in science may be unappealing or actively off-putting (Blickenstaff, 2005).

5.18 Networking has been identified as a means of overcoming these problems and encouraging women in science, but research has identified that women are often excluded from existing networks as many networking activities are based on activities traditionally thought to be male (Bagilhole et. al., 2008). Involvement with networking or policies aimed at women could also be construed negatively by other colleagues (Etzkowitz et. al., 2000). This can lead to further segregation of women.

Flexible working and work-life balance

5.19 The availability of part-time working has been highlighted as a concern. Flexible working and part-time working were often not easily accessible in SET ( UKRC, 2010, Sappleton and Takruri-Rizk, 2008). This has particular implications for women with family and childcare responsibilities ( UKRC, 2010).

5.20 Part-time working may be regarded as demonstrating less overall commitment to the organisation, and companies often tend to invest less in training and development for part-time staff (Sappleton and Takruri-Rizk, 2008). This association of women with part-time work may make them seem less like the "ideal" flexible worker, and thus hamper their efforts to progress in the organisation (Sappleton and Takruri-Rizk, 2008).

5.21 The need or perceived need to follow "male" working patterns in order to succeed was also cited as a cause of the under-representation of women in some sectors, for instance construction ( UKRC, 2008). The dominant workplace culture of long hours and total availability as markers of commitment and promotion potential was once again of particular detriment to women with domestic and family responsibilities (Bagilhole et. al., 2008).