I've done the maths: there are too few women in science


There is no shortage of female graduates, so why are women under- represented when it comes to university staff? It’s time to tip the gender imbalance, writes Dr AOIFE McLYSAGHT

ACCORDING TO most schoolchildren, I don’t look like a scientist. If you ask them to draw a picture of a scientist, nearly all of them will draw a man, possibly with grey hair and glasses. I have none of these attributes. Yet, I am a scientist, so I must look like one.

The kids’ idea of a typical scientist is unfortunately accurate. It is still a male-dominated profession, which is not only a shame, but it’s also a big loss for the universities and research institutions because they are missing out on a lot of talent.

Despite the fact that women earn 46 per cent of the PhDs awarded in Ireland every year, which is around the EU average, only 33 per cent of those actually working in science are female.

In Trinity, only 38 per cent of the faculty (lecturers and professors) are women. It’s even worse within science and engineering, where 18 per cent are women. Throughout the university, men outnumber women in every academic grade, but especially so in science, and it gets worse the higher you look. If you consider only the top grade, full professors, in Trinity there are just 13 women, compared with 81 men.

This information (printed on this page) was starkly portrayed in a graph produced by the Women in Science and Engineering Research (Wiser) office of Trinity. It wasn’t news to many within the university.

It isn’t even different from the EU average. We call it the “scissors plot” because the two lines – one representing women and one men – cross over and get further apart, much like a drawing of a scissors.

There is some partial explanation in the fact that years ago, when many of the people who are now professors were first appointed to university jobs, there probably weren’t as many women in the workforce, for social and cultural reasons. However, even in the most junior lecturing grade, which is mainly made up of recent appointments from a time when the available pool should have been balanced, men are still more numerous than women.

Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that this little spotlight on gender inequality at home came in the same week as a new study on gender bias in the sciences was reported in the New York Times. The original study was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal.

The researchers sent CVs to various university professors and asked them to take part in a mentorship exercise. They were asked to evaluate the CVs, as if they were considering the people concerned for a job, so as to give the best feedback to the candidates.

The CVs were fictional and were designed to test for subconscious prejudices on the part of the professors. There were just two kinds of CV made for the study, and they were identical except for a single detail – in one CV the applicant was called “John”, and in the other “Jennifer”.

Each professor saw only one CV and they were asked to evaluate various characteristics and suggest a starting salary. Depressingly, John was evaluated as being significantly more competent and more hireable overall, and was offered a 13 per cent higher salary. With an identical CV, poor Jennifer wasn’t taken seriously.

WOMEN AND girls want to do science, and we’re good at it. At the Higher Options fair in the RDS in September, I was delighted to see so many girls coming up to me, brimful of confidence and enthusiasm, asking about entry to courses in genetics, physics and maths. At undergraduate level, at least half of the students taking degrees in biological sciences are female. Yet, in the higher ranks of the universities, there are few women. These are the very girls who are more than able to “do the maths”.

Many people in positions of authority in universities have spent a lot of energy trying to figure out what is going wrong in the appointment of women to academic positions. One popular idea is that it is to do with child-rearing choices. Women are deciding to stay at home and look after their children.

However, are they making this choice or is it being made for them? If they aren’t being hired to do the jobs they are qualified to do, if they keep meeting resistance and discouragement, then pretty soon they’ll naturally stop trying.

Personally, I have found an academic career to be very family-friendly. I get evaluated by my colleagues and peers on my productivity over timescales of months, not days. If, on any given Tuesday, I need to stay at home with a sick child, then that is just fine. They’re only young for such a short while after all. Once I’m getting the job done, and doing it well, then it doesn’t matter.

That isn’t to say that having children didn’t affect my productivity – of course it did. I’m surely getting less done than I am capable of. However, I know, because they tell me so, that female students are encouraged by the very fact of my being a working scientist and mother.

Women are just as good at science as men. University heads frequently declare a wish to appoint and retain more women in their faculty. Yet, the representation of women is only increasing very slowly.

The valuable insight of the CV study is that the prejudice is subconscious. Well-intentioned professors are making bad decisions. This tells us that we can’t wait for this problem to fix itself. Some action must be taken – and the Wiser office has taken on that challenge.

There is no easy or quick solution to a problem that has crept as far as the childhood toy- box – since when are simple Lego bricks a boys’ toy? There is a stereotype that needs to be countered. Women need to be more visible, which means including them more in the media. There are plenty of articulate women to choose from, just ask the Women On Air networking group or the people behind The Antiroom podcast.

Women also need to be included more in the decision-making process in universities and research institutions, not as tokenism, but as active and valued members of the group. It is up to universities to create the correct circumstances, not just reflect the current circumstances.

The European genSET project, of which Science Foundation Ireland is a stakeholder partner, is seeking to understand and address the factors that lead to the lower representation of women in sciences. One of these is that recruitment procedures often favour men by valuing quantity over quality.

Anyone who has taken time out to have children will naturally have fewer papers published, and the typical structure of an academic career means that this temporary window of reduced productivity tends to coincide with the time when people are looking for their first faculty job. Recruitment procedures need to more explicitly account for this.

When any university hires a new lecturer, what it is trying to do is recognise the people most likely to make a significant, positive contribution over the entire course of their career.

By failing to recognise that good scientists are still good, even after taking some time out, educational institutions are letting highly trained, dynamic women fall out of the system.

I’ve been very lucky in my career because all the people I’ve ever worked for, although all men, have been feminists. They all have a simple and active confidence in the equality of men and women. They took me seriously, encouraged me, and gave me opportunities. This meant that on those rare but uncomfortable occasions when someone did treat me as a lesser, I had the self-assuredness to reject such nonsense.

One of the events that helped boost my career was my being appointed to an editorship of a well-regarded international journal in my field. There were about 50 editors of this journal, and the then editor-in-chief made it his explicit policy to attain gender equality – after all, there are plainly more than 25 worthy and competent women in our field.

Nonetheless, when he announced this intention to some colleagues, they complained that he was giving these positions to “young women with no experience”, to which he replied: “And if I don’t, they’ll become old women with no experience.”

Dr Aoife McLysaght is associate professor of genetics at Trinity College, Dublin. Her recent lecture to the TEDxDublin forum at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre is at iti.ms/PreUYr

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