Overcoming Gender Inequality in Science and Beyond

(September 28th, 2017) There is an increasing awareness in the UK, and in many other countries, that women are under-represented in senior science positions. The SciSisters initiative tackles these problems directly.

The number of women ever decreases as higher up the career ranks one looks. In Scotland, only 10% of senior positions are occupied by women. Reason enough for Polly L. Arnold, Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, to launch a counter movement, “The idea behind this ‘science sisterhood’ is two-fold: first, to combat potential isolation of women by helping them find links across discipline or job-type, and second, to make the work of Scotland’s female STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) experts more visible, and thus help counter some of the effects of unconscious bias.”

Polly Arnold told me she developed the website to address the problem in Scotland since “because of the landscape, I realised there was a need to do something to support senior women here, while we work away at stemming the leaky pipeline at the lower levels”. Arnold explained that “the network is simply a map containing a pin for each member that includes their name, job, and keywords”. The network is aimed at senior scientists in academia, government and industry, and Arnold is keen for women working in these leadership roles to join “and find connections with like-minded people nearby”.

As a man, you might be reading this and thinking this is great news for you - but don’t be so sure. There is extensive evidence showing that a high percentage of women in top positions pays off, including a positive financial effect. So why is there still such a gender bias? The European Commission stated in 2014, that “although today 60% of new university graduates are female, women are outnumbered by men in leadership positions in the corporate sector in the EU”, meaning the gap is not due to differences in educational attainment, as perhaps it once was. 

Polly Arnold hopes that “we won’t need [SciSisters] in 20 years’ time”. But how likely is this to happen? Gender inequality is not a problem restricted to Science but one, which is rife throughout all disciplines. Despite females representing approximately half the workforce, the 2016 study also revealed only 16% of board members in European companies are female, and less than 5% in some other countries. To address the problem, several initiatives are being implemented throughout the world.

One idea that has been employed in several countries is that of laws, dictating the minimum number of women that must occupy senior positions. In 2003, Norway was the first country to pass a law implementing a 40% gender quota by 2008 on corporate boards. In 2007, Spain passed a similar law, requiring companies to increase the share of female directors to 40% by 2015, however, only 16.8% has been achieved. Some of the countries, which currently have no gender quotas, such as Germany, Sweden and the UK, are all considering imposing a gender quota for firms’ boards. Clearly, progress is slow but it is being made. The number of countries with women accounting for at least 25% of board members has increased from five (Finland, France, Latvia, Sweden and the Netherlands) to eight (France, Latvia, Finland, Sweden, UK, Denmark, Italy and Germany) between 2013 and 2015, according to figures published by the European Commission.

Other initiatives have also been executed to help address the problem of gender inequality. For example, in 2005, the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women's Academic Network) awards were introduced, which are awarded at Bronze, Silver and Gold level to research institutes across the UK and Ireland to “recognise and celebrate good practice towards the advancement of gender equality: representation, progression and success for all”. It is clear, however, that more progress is needed before the need for initiatives like SciSisters may be relinquished.

Nicola Hunt

Photo: Pixabay/ELIXIR

Last Changes: 10.20.2017