Pushing for scientific equality

20 Mar 2018

Pushing for scientific equality

With women still under-represented at senior levels in science and technology, what will it take to make a change?

Yesika Aguilera of Tespack, pioneers of wearable, mobile energy generation, feels that “in order to make a change and see a change, we need to be the change.

We need to push for equality and avoid any battle of the sexes, and rather build a community where talent gets rewarded regardless of gender, sex, background, etc.”

Welcoming women

Julia MacMillan is doing her best to bring this change about and make tech more welcoming for women. Kaggle is a platform for data science competitions, and Julia set up a regular ‘Women in Kaggle’ meeting in London for data scientists to discuss their work.

“I had seen a need within the tech community for women to have a space where they weren’t in the minority,” she says.

“It’s in no way anti-guys, it’s just a little haven where they could go and be in the majority and exchange skills and knowledge. People loved it and it took off.”

Looking for leaders

Kaggle member Gemma Milne is a writer who is well-placed to survey attitudes across the industries she covers. Gemma is the co-founder of Science Disrupt, which records podcasts, writes editorials and runs events with the aim of changing science’s culture. She notes that in biology, women are well represented at junior levels, but this does not extend to proportionate representation in leadership positions.

“We still have a problem when it comes to who are the leaders of departments, or who are the speakers at conferences,” she says, mentioning a forthcoming conference in Austria on cell migration. “It’s all about biology and they don’t have one woman speaker, and there’s talk of boycotting it. This is the one area in science where there are plenty of women and you don’t have any!"

“Without making a sweeping statement, I think women are more encouraged to do subjects like biology than maths, physics or chemistry because it’s seen as being more about people.”

Ph.D. imbalance

Taking the USA as an example, the ‘Science and Engineering Degree Completion by Gender’ report released in April 2017 by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center illustrates the gender situation at Ph.D. level.

The report covers engineering, computer science, earth/atmospheric/ocean sciences, physical sciences, maths, biological and agricultural sciences, social sciences and psychology.

The number of Ph.D.s in scientific disciplines awarded to American students leaped by 50% between 2006 and 2016. However, the proportion of women gaining those degrees increased only by one or two percentage points. Across the board, there was an average 40:60 imbalance towards men.

Biological and agricultural sciences were indeed one of the few areas where women are in a majority, receiving 51.6% of PhDs. Another is social sciences and psychology.

Australia and India show the way

Elsewhere in the world, the statistics reinforce the idea that progress is being made at an undergraduate level.

In 2015, Australia reached gender parity in the natural and physical sciences, when 50.1% of undergraduates were women. And in 2014-15, women made up 46.7% of science undergraduates in India.

Blocked gateways

If figures from an American study conducted at MIT in 2014 remain broadly accurate four years on, they back up Gemma Milne’s comments about women’s representation at senior levels.

According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article authored by biology graduate Jason Sheltzer and software engineer Joan Smith, only 36% of assistant professors and 18% of full professors are women.

In laboratories run by female professors, women formed 53% of graduate students and 46% of postdocs. By contrast, in labs run by men, those figures were 47% and 36%, respectively.

These gender differences were heightened in ‘elite’ labs. Those run by male Nobel laureates, for instance, had a ratio of two male grad students to one female. This ratio was 3:1 among postdoc students. Such imbalances were not evident in labs run by elite women scientists.

“What we found is that these labs really function as a gateway to the professoriate,” Sheltzer explained. “So we think the fact that they’re not hiring very many women is important for understanding why there are still so few female faculty members.”

Global Context

Meanwhile, a 2017 UNESCO Institute for Statistics report puts these findings into a global context. Worldwide, women represent 28.8% of scientists involved in research and development, with large differences between regions.

Regional averages for the share of female researchers in science

Regional average share of female researchers in science

Final challenge

Brilliant women have long made massive contributions to the realms of science and technology.

Tackling the culture which creates limits on entering the profession fulfilling potential is the immediate and pressing challenge if that is to continue to an even greater degree.

This article is the second of two, examining the role of women in science and technology, from the latest copy of the Odgers Berndtson magazine, Observe.

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