Dropping out of a science career, in a picture

December 10, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The graph shows data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) for full-time staff, 2007-2008.

The three lines show the proportions of total personnel (solid black line), men (dashed line) and women (grey line) at four increasingly senior levels of an academic science career: researcher, lecturer, senior and professorial.

The data have been standardised so that a value of 100% (horizontal dashed line at top) corresponds to the total number at entry (researcher) level. This means 12355 male, 5375 female and 17730 total staff.

There is, as any postdoc will be uncomfortably aware, a big drop in the transition from typically insecure, fixed-term researcher positions to the coveted status of lecturer, with its hope of secure and permanent employment. But the story of training far more young scientists than ever pursue an academic career is an old one. So let’s look instead at what happens higher up the ladder, among those who do become academic scientists.

Basically, the proportions for women keep on dropping; those for men don’t. A gap between genders (of just over 30%) is established at senior level and maintained into professorhood.

Overall, the latest HESA data (for 2010) suggest that 19.8% of academic staff employed as professors are women. That’s around double the proportion of lady science professors (in 2008).

Thus, contrary to some suggestions, it’s not the first step of getting a job that’s so problematic for women in science (although there is a difference, of just under 9%, between the genders). It’s the transition to leadership: to running a lab, heading up big grant applications, gaining promotion.

Many people have suggested reasons why this transition may hammer women so much harder than men: the pressures of motherhood, for instance. However, if the problem is with getting women into leadership positions, then maybe the science leadership — organisations like the Royal Society — can play a bigger role, not least by setting an example.

Nature magazine has recently promised that its editors will, when commissioning new pieces, ask ‘Who are the five women I could ask?‘ as part of the process. If selection for senior lecturer and researcher positions in the UK had included the same quick mental check in recent decades, might the gender gap by now be a distant memory?

Perhaps not; other factors are at play. But the thing about counterfactuals like that one is — duh — that they aren’t real. Reality is women deterred from reaching the summits of science, at the very time when science needs them more than ever.

And that’s just the most obvious, familiar minority. In my next post, I’ll look at another one.


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