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Why we do what we do in a nutshell

Dr Tennie Videler,  Co-chair of Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering

Women are under-represented in employment in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM), both inside and outside academia. Even in the biosciences, where women make up over half of the undergraduates, women still account for only 15% of professors. In all STEMM subjects, qualified women are not retained in similar proportions to men with the result that women are severely under-represented in senior positions. For example, among science, engineering and technology (SET) academic faculty in the US in 2003, women comprised 18 to 45 % of assistant professors (26% lecturers and 18% senior researchers/lecturers in the UK in 07/08) and 6 to 29 % of associate and full professors (9% in the UK in 07/08). Not just in academia, but in general SET occupations, fewer women with undergraduate SET qualifications enter SET professional or associate professional occupations. Possible reasons for this are multi-faceted, not easy to solve, but worth exploring:

Unconscious bias
Although few women experience overt discrimination, there is ample evidence that women (and members of ethnic minorities) are disadvantaged by unconscious bias. In one experiment academic CV’s that differed only in whether the name on the CV was a traditional male name or a traditional female name were sent to academics. They found that both men and women were more likely to recommend a male job applicant than a female even though their records were identical. Specific examples of unconscious bias often appear inconsequential, it is their cumulative effect that is important.

Family responsibilities
Whether through choice or otherwise, women still shoulder the majority of family responsibilities. The long hours, low-pay culture in academia and other sectors creates additional barriers for women with child care responsibilities. Policies or informal practices can have a disproportionately deleterious impact on women. For example, a seminar series at 4.30pm will tend to exclude those with child care responsibility. In general, good practice benefits all, but bad practice adversely affects women’s careers more than men’s. Because of responsibilities to partners and children, women are generally relatively less willing or able to move for employment. In academia, there is a tendency to prize mobility very highly, with a perceived bias to external candidates, which again can impact on women’s progression.

Status Quo
The fact that STEMM is currently very male dominated means there can be a lack of role models that women can identify with and aspire to. It also presents a barrier to change because of the fact that people in general recruit ‘in their own image’: they will have some bias towards people it is easy for them to imagine working with. While STEMM remains male-dominated, this will favour men.

In short, there are many complex, intangible reasons for the current low representation of women in STEMM, but it is clear that lack of ability is not one of them. Our mission is to inspire and connect women in STEMM.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I write about a lot of this stuff on my blog at, including role models, leadership and gender equality, etc.
    My most recent post is called “Why women in science don’t want to work at universities” — check it out!

    March 19, 2012

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