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MPs blame universities for shortage of women in STEM careers

The shortage of female scientists in academia is down to bias and impractical work arrangements within universities, according to MPs.

A new report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee criticises universities for an “astonishing” under-representation of women in senior roles.

Currently, hold only 17 per cent of professors across science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines are female, according to recent BIS figures.

The committee’s report, which follows its “Women in Scientific Careers” inquiry, suggests the reasons for this include bias in the academic community against the idea of women holding scientific careers.

It said this was particularly the case among selection panels, which tend to be populated by men.

But the committee added that women can be as likely to hold these opinions as men – despite scientists’ perception of themselves as unbiased and objective.

To combat this, universities need to provide diversity and equality training for all STEM undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as members of recruitment and promotion panels and line managers, the committee said.

It also said the prevalence of short term contracts is a barrier to job security, which disproportionately affect women in the early stages of their careers when they are thinking about starting a family.

The committee said the Government and higher education sector need to increase the number of longer-term positions for post-doctoral researchers.

“It is astonishing that women still remain under-represented at professorial levels in academia across every scientific discipline. It’s time for universities to pull their socks up,” said Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Committee.

“Some universities are doing a great job at improving working conditions for women scientists, but others are not. The system of short term contracts is hugely off-putting for many women scientists.

“More standardisation is required across the whole higher education sector and that is why we have called for Government, universities and research councils to review the academic careers structure, so that talented women, and men, can have more stable career pathways.”

The committee was also critical of the Government for cutting funding for the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) in the 2010 spending review.

It said the Government’s efforts are currently focusing on recruiting girls to STEM subjects, but is not doing enough to support female scientists’ transition into careers in academia.

The committee recommended that the Government monitors the effects of its cuts to the UKRC, and should increase diversity funding if there has been a negative effect on careers.

But the Government defended its current position on support for STEM careers.

“The Government gives funding to programmes such as STEM Ambassadors, the National Academies, Research Councils UK fellowships and the Big Bang Fair,” said a BIS Spokesperson.

“These are aimed at encouraging at diverse range of people to study science and engineering. These programmes have a wider reach and make better use of resources than the previous programme aimed specifically at women and girls alone.”

The Institute of Physics said it was already implementing many of the recommendations in the report through its Project Juno and long-running Girls in Physics programme.
 
Whilst the Institute welcomed the recommendations from the Science and Technology Committee, it also said it believed more needs to be done at the grass roots level to tackle culture change in STEM careers.
 
Professor Helen Gleeson, from the University of Manchester and the Acting Chair of the Institute’s Juno Assessment Panel, said, "Addressing culture change is crucial to ensuring that the recommendations in the Science and Technology Committee report on Women in Scientific Careers can be successfully implemented.
 
“The Institute's Project Juno has enabled many physics departments to address this by providing a framework to tackle the major barriers that can affect the recruitment and retention of female academic staff. We have already seen massive advances in those departments that have worked incredibly hard to be Practitioners and Champions."

A Universities UK spokesperson said: "It is worth noting that in comparison with the rest of Europe, the UK sits in the upper half of countries in terms of participation by females in science, mathematics and computing. This can largely be attributed to the work universities have done with schools to encourage participation in these subjects.

"However, universities recognise that more needs to be done, especially to ensure better retention levels for women in STEM roles. This is reflected in the growing numbers of universities involved in the Equality Challenge Unit's Athena SWAN charter, a scheme which recognises excellence in science, engineering and technology employment for women in higher education.

"Progress will depend on a combination of factors, including educators helping to change attitudes from an early age and employers encouraging and harnessing female talent."

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