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8 Jul 1998 : Column 1046

Women (Science and Engineering)

1.30 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): I should perhaps declare an interest as I am a woman scientist, although, unless the electorate decide otherwise, I do not intend to return to my scientific career.

The importance of science, engineering and technology to Britain's future prosperity is well recognised and has been stressed by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the President of the Board of Trade and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If we are to build a truly competitive economy, we need to develop the new industries that exploit the opportunities provided by science and engineering, and especially biotechnology and electronics, and a key component of that strategy is to ensure that we have qualified scientists and engineers to work in those high-technology industries.

The pharmaceutical industry, which is arguably the industrial sector in which Britain is most competitive internationally, is already expressing concern at the shortage of suitably qualified scientists, and the engineering industry, including some firms in my constituency, is seriously affected by skills shortages. In that context, the under-representation of women and girls in science and engineering is of great concern.

In 1993, although 60 per cent. of university students in the biological sciences were female, women accounted for only 30 per cent. in maths and the physical sciences, and only 14 per cent. in engineering. How can we hope to meet future needs for scientists and engineers if half the population is excluded?

The previous Government, to their credit, began to recognise the problem, which was documented in the report, "The Rising Tide", published soon after the science White Paper, "Realising Our Potential". Measures were introduced to try to encourage girls and women to take up scientific careers, and those have been built on and extended by the present Government.

Much attention and activity, including the Engineering Council's WISE--Women in Science and Engineering--campaign, have focused on making science education more girl-friendly. The problem for girls is not only getting in, but getting on. There is considerable qualitative research evidence suggesting that women actively choose not to enter science and engineering professions because they perceive that they offer them poor promotion prospects. A report by the Prism group of the Wellcome Trust in 1994 documented a feeling among women science undergraduates that science had a masculine culture of which they did not want to be a part.

There is little quantitative data on women's participation in science in the private sector, so most of the statistics that I cite will relate to the academic sector, but anecdotal evidence suggests that women scientists experience the same difficulties in both the private and the public sectors.

In 1994, although 17 per cent. of all university science academics were women, they were disproportionately concentrated in the lower echelons, constituting 19 per cent. of all science lecturers, but only 5 per cent. of all readers and senior lecturers and only 2 per cent. of all science professors.

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A recent study by Fielding and Glover of the occupational destinations of women science and engineering graduates, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, showed that only 15 per cent. were employed as professional scientists or engineers, compared with 31 per cent. of the equivalent male graduates.

Most women science graduates are employed in teaching and in non-professional jobs for which they are overqualified. That represents not only a limitation for the women involved, but a considerable underuse of public resources. It is expensive to train engineers and scientists, and it must be of general concern if a high proportion of those trained choose not to stay in science and engineering, even when jobs are available.

Given the apparently poor promotion prospects for women, it is not surprising that they choose not to enter science. I want to focus on one factor that may contribute to women's problems in getting on in academic science: the difficulty in successfully competing for research funding. That funding is absolutely essential for scientists to establish themselves as independent investigators and progress up the academic promotion ladder.

Last May, a paper was published in Nature by two Swedish women scientists, Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wolde. The authors used Sweden's freedom of the press rights to gain access to the scoring system used by the Swedish Medical Research Council in assessing candidates for post-doctoral fellowships.

It was already public knowledge in Sweden that women had a lower success rate than men in the fellowships. The panels that award them base their assessment of each applicant in part on a score for scientific competence, the most objective measure of which is given by a person's record of scientific publication, which would consist of both the number of articles and the quality of the journals that published them. Wenneras and Wolde showed that women were consistently marked down by the assessment panel, and on average a woman needed to have published 2.6 times as many papers as a man to be awarded the same competence score.

The publication of the Swedish study raised concerns in this country about the appraisal methods used in allocating research funding here. In response to that concern, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade asked the director general of the research councils to investigate whether their assessment methods for allocating both grants and fellowships were free from any bias against women.

The director general reported that the success rates of men and women applicants for funding were similar, and that there was no statistically significant evidence of a bias against women. That is confirmed by figures given to me in parliamentary answers and by a study by the British Medical Research Council, published in Nature in December 1997.

Will the Minister ask his officials to examine more closely the systems used by the research councils? The strength of the Swedish analysis was that the competence scores of all the applicants, both successful and unsuccessful, were compared with an objective measure of their scientific output, whereas the director general's

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analysis merely compared success rates, which would demonstrate an absence of bias only if the quality of the male and female applicants was exactly the same, and I shall expand in a moment on why the quality of female applicants might in fact be expected to be higher. The director general should be asked to look again and consider whether candidates of equal competence are assessed equally, regardless of gender. The research councils should also be asked to monitor their own assessment procedures internally to ensure that British peer review panels, unlike their Swedish counterparts, do not discriminate in favour of men.

In questioning whether equal success rates really reflect a lack of bias in assessment, I pointed out that women and men applicants might not have equal competence. The most striking statistic in relation to research council funding is the percentage of women among the applicants. Even in the biological sciences, which have the highest proportion of women graduates, only about 15 per cent. of applicants for project and programme grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council are women, for the Natural Environment Research Council, the figure is only 9 per cent., and for the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the figure falls even further to 7 per cent.. The percentages are slightly higher for fellowships and grants aimed at new investigators, but even so, they are still low.

I have already quoted data to show the reduction in women's participation as they move up the scientific career pyramid. That must indicate a greater difficulty for women in achieving promotion in science, which suggests that women who have succeeded in establishing themselves as independent investigators--that is, the women who are in a position to apply for research funding--may well be of higher average competence than the much larger group of male applicants who have faced fewer barriers to their career progress. If that is so, one would expect women to have a higher success rate than men if the assessment system were truly without bias.

The low percentage of women among applicants for research funding is an issue in itself. Promotion within academic science depends on publication record and the number of publications depends, apart from on ability itself, on the ability to win research funding for oneself and one's research group. Clearly, the larger the group, the more work it will get done and the more publications it is likely to be in. We need to identify the factors that discourage women from applying for grants and fellowships. It could well be that fewer women are in a position to apply for funding. In most cases, only researchers in permanent positions can make independent applications, which rules out many women researchers as evidence shows that men are more likely to get permanent positions.

The Government have encouraged the research councils and the universities to introduce more family-friendly conditions, including more child care provision, holding women's grants in abeyance while they are on maternity leave and allowing women to take fellowships with them if they have to move from one place to another because of family commitments. I applaud all those measures, which obviously help to make it easier for women to pursue a scientific career and I hope that the Government will redouble and continue their efforts in that way.

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However, it appears that the barriers to women's progression in science are more complex than that. Comparisons between the situation in Britain and in France, for example, suggest that the problem is more fundamental. France has a tradition of high levels of support for child care, which is reflected in the fact that most women scientists in France have full-time and relatively uninterrupted working patterns similar to those of male scientists. That is not so in Britain. In addition, academic scientists in France do not have to cope with the same degree of insecurity and mobility as do scientists in British universities. Obviously, that is a factor that tends to affect women more than men. Despite those advantages, French women scientists and engineers experience exactly the same difficulties in promotion as do their British sisters, which suggests a need for a serious rethink about the way in which science is organised.


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