Women in scientific careers - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Business case for retention of women in science

1.  The UK economy needs more skilled scientists and engineers and this need will not be met unless greater efforts are made to recruit and retain women in STEM careers. (Paragraph 5)

2.  Gender diversity in STEM can bring business benefits if well managed. The business case for diversity in science is being reviewed by the Royal Society and we expect that its findings will highlight how STEM organisations can maximise the business benefits of diversity in the workforce. (Paragraph 7)

3.  We suggest that the national academies, learned societies and research funders review how gender analysis can improve research findings within different STEM disciplines and formulate guidance on the matter. Research funders should encourage the consideration of gender dimensions of research from funding applicants. (Paragraph 9)

The role of Government

4.  Although we accept that difficult financial decisions had to be made by the Government in the 2010 Spending review, it is disappointing that spending dedicated to improving diversity in science was so significantly reduced. While we have no concerns about the quality of the diversity programmes of the National Academies, we have not been assured that they could have the same reach and impact as the UKRC had. (Paragraph 13)

5.  The Government should monitor the effects of its policies on mainstreaming diversity funding. If it transpires that cutting UKRC funding and mainstreaming has had a detrimental effect on the retention of women in STEM careers, the Government should increase diversity funding. (Paragraph 14)

6.  It would not be practical to mandate that applicants for research funding must hold Athena SWAN awards, although we commend the Chief Medical Officer for taking this step with some NIHR funding streams. We recommend that all public research funders should require applicants and recipients to demonstrate that they are taking steps to improve equality and diversity. Each research funder should publish and disseminate this expectation and what actions will be considered sufficient to meet this criterion. (Paragraph 15)

7.  The Athena SWAN Charter is a comprehensive scheme that is widely supported across academia. With increasing demand, the Equality Challenge Unit may require additional resources and the Government should respond positively to any such request. (Paragraph 17)

8.  We encourage the Government to work with the STEM community and schools to tackle gender stereotypes in education, particularly at primary level. In addition, we re-iterate the importance of engagement with STEM industry being part of teachers' CPD. (Paragraph 18)

Women in academia

9.  Scientists are susceptible to the same unconscious gender biases as the rest of the population and it is unfortunate that some are unwilling to accept this simply because their professional research requires them to be objective. It is important to recognise that biases that harm women are held by both men and women. (Paragraph 29)

10.  We recommend that diversity and equality training, including unconscious bias training, should be provided to all STEM undergraduate and postgraduate students by their Higher Education Institution (HEI). In addition, such training should be mandatory for (i) all members of recruitment and promotion panels for STEM jobs in HEIs; and (ii) all line managers and supervisors of staff. (Paragraph 30)

11.  All research funders should also ensure that diversity and equality training is provided to all members of grant application review panels. This is particularly important where women are under-represented on those panels and in the STEM discipline being considered. (Paragraph 31)

12.  Universities should ensure that recruiters and search committees identifying potential candidates for senior roles give particular consideration to encouraging suitably qualified female candidates, in line with the principles of positive action. (Paragraph 32)

13.  Role models are important for inspiring males and females to study STEM subjects and pursue STEM careers. The lack of senior or high-profile women scientists reduces the availability of female role models, which particularly affects girls and women. (Paragraph 37)

14.  The National Academies, learned societies and HEIs should emphasise both male and female role models who have successfully combined a STEM career with family life. In particular, highlighting male scientists who have combined career with childcare and family responsibilities could help to counter perceptions that these are women's issues rather than matters that concern all parents. (Paragraph 38)

15.  There is strong support for mentoring schemes and evidence that it encourages women to apply for promotions and other opportunities. We recommend that HEIs and other STEM employers should implement mentoring schemes for all staff, with particular attention paid towards mentoring for women and other groups that are under-represented at senior levels. (Paragraph 39)

The nature and funding of research careers

16.  Balancing the benefits of short term contracts with the needs of Post-Doctoral Researchers was examined by our predecessor committee in 2002. We are disappointed at the lack of progress in the last decade. The system of short term employment contracts for post-docs results in job insecurity and discontinuity of employment rights that is difficult for any researcher, but disproportionally deters women from continuing with science careers. It also has implications for workforce productivity. (Paragraph 45)

17.  We are pleased that some research funders are recognising the benefits of long term contracts to academic careers and encourage others to follow this example. We encourage Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to provide longer term posts for post-docs, recognising the benefit to scientific progress of continuing expertise. (Paragraph 46)

18.  We recommend that the Government should work with the Higher Education sector to review the academic career structure and increase the number of more stable and permanent post-doc positions. (Paragraph 47)

19.  International collaboration brings benefits to science but requiring researchers to relocate is not the only way to promote it. We suggest that research funders should remove from fellowship conditions any requirements for researchers to move institute or country and instead provide funding for shorter visits to other institutes for collaboration purposes. We recommend that research funders work with HEIs to create funding for permanent post-doc positions. (Paragraph 48)

20.  Wherever possible, HEIs should provide three months of bridging funding for post-docs, to allow them time to apply for new contracts. (Paragraph 49)

21.  We appreciate that funding from research councils and the REF must be based on scientific and research excellence and support the continuation of this principle. We are satisfied that HECFE takes seriously the issue of monitoring the gender impact of the REF. (Paragraph 53)

22.  We recommend that HEIs and heads of research groups should ensure that important non-research activities are recognised in performance appraisals and promotion boards. (Paragraph 54)

23.  There appears to be a lack of coordination and communication between research funders and HEIs which, exacerbated by the use of short term contracts, results in women falling into cracks in the funding system when maternity support is required. Research funders need to make their maternity provisions clearer to researchers and their employers. (Paragraph 58)

24.  We have recommended a review of the academic careers system which should examine how to better support women taking maternity leave and help them integrate back into the workplace. A move towards longer-term employment of academic researchers should encourage maternity provisions in line with other employment sectors. (Paragraph 59)

Management of research careers by higher education institutions

25.  We support the shared parental leave system being proposed by the Children and Families Bill, as shared parental leave is an important step towards creating equality for everyone in the workplace. However, simply introducing a new system will not in itself change workplace attitudes towards maternity, or the difficulties caused by taking parental leave. Academia will still need to address the real and perceived career damage which can be caused by taking parental leave. (Paragraph 60)

26.  All HEIs should review the working hours of their academic staff and the management of research groups to ensure that practices are in keeping with the needs of those employees with caring responsibilities. Such matters should not be devolved down to research groups. Line managers who pressure staff into working unreasonably long working hours should be held to account by their employer. In addition, every academic researcher should have a named contact within the HEI's human resources team to whom they can confidentially direct queries. (Paragraph 62)

27.  Scientific research cannot always take place within regular working hours. However, we recommend that research departments should determine and operate appropriate core working hours with flexibility outside of those core hours. This would ensure that most staff members are available for key meetings while ensuring that those with caring responsibilities are not disproportionately disadvantaged. Fellowships and academic positions should be advertised with the option of working part time unless there are insurmountable obstacles to such an arrangement. (Paragraph 63)

28.  A key way to increase the participation of women in STEM careers is to enable them to return following career breaks. We are pleased that the Government is providing financial support to the Daphne Jackson Trust so that it can develop a new fellowship in engineering. We encourage more HEIs to sponsor and host Daphne Jackson Fellows. (Paragraph 66)

29.  Careers advice and support for academic STEM researchers is important for both men and women, but a lack of it can affect women disproportionately. HEIs and learned societies should encourage mentoring, support networks and seminars at the research group level and monitor this practice. We note that such activities are encouraged by the Athena SWAN charter. (Paragraph 69)

30.  Authoritative and impartial careers advice on options outside academia should be available to all undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as researchers. (Paragraph 70)

31.  Identifying the reasons why staff choose to end their employment in an organisation is crucial to identifying and challenging where poor behaviours and practices may exist. We are disappointed that information on the reasons why women leave academic STEM careers is patchy and largely anecdotal. (Paragraph 74)

32.  Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) should routinely conduct exit interviews and/or questionnaires with all researchers leaving their employment. Each HEI should publish this data in a suitably anonymised form so that organisations working to improve diversity in STEM can make use of it. Organisations such as the WISE Campaign, Equality Challenge Unit and national academies should advise HEIs on the best way to gather and publish this data in a consistent manner. (Paragraph 75)


33.  Our inquiry has not uncovered any new issues on the topic of gender diversity in STEM subjects. This indicates that the problems and solutions have long been identified, yet not enough is being done to actively improve the situation. While competitiveness for jobs is beneficial for science, careers should not be constructed in such a way that talented women are deterred from remaining and progressing in STEM. It is astonishing that despite clear imperatives and multiple initiatives to improve diversity in STEM, women still remain under-represented at senior levels across every discipline. (Paragraph 76)

34.  The under-representation of women in STEM is caused by a wide range of factors. Emphasis is often placed on inspiring young girls to choose science, which is commendable, but such efforts are wasted if women are then disproportionately disadvantaged in scientific careers compared to men. It is disappointing that biases and working practices result in systematic and cumulative discrimination against women throughout STEM study and academic careers. (Paragraph 77)

35.  Universities and other HEIs are the employers of academic STEM researchers so they have ultimate responsibility for employment conditions and the greatest obligation to improve STEM careers for all researchers. While there are many examples of good practice in diversity management, some HEIs appear to be too content to devolve responsibility for working hours, careers support and promotion down to research groups. More standardisation is required across the higher education (HE) sector. We encourage all HEIs conducting STEM research to apply for Athena SWAN awards, or similar recognised schemes. (Paragraph 78)

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Prepared 6 February 2014