Week 4: Women in SET (how do we keep them there?)

Sir Gareth Roberts undertook a review of the supply of scientists and engineers for the UK Government in 2001. The review was published in 2002:
SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills’.

According to the course notes, points raised by the report of particular relevance to women were:

  1. the shortage of women in post-16 and higher education choosing to study SET subjects
  2. the need for better job design in order to allow more flexible working
  3. the use of short-term contracts, which make career planning difficult – this was identified as a significant factor in discouraging women from entering scientific careers.

Something which I find sad and a little worrying is the assumption made by both the report and the course notes:

SET employment seems to offer less flexibility to employees than other areas of work and so was unattractive to women who need more flexibility in their working practice because of their multiple responsibilities.

We’ve come a long way since the time when every woman was expected to be one of the Stepford Wives, and instructed to greet her husband at the door with a clean ribbon in her hair, the children safely in bed, and fresh makeup on. We’ve quite clearly not come far enough.

In January 2002, Baroness Susan Greenfield was asked to prepare a separate report specifically to look into the shortage of women in SET. SET Fair: A Report on Women in Science, Engineering and Technology was published later that year.

Baroness Greenfield chose to focus on three key career stages:

Firstly, for those starting out, balancing decisions about family or career break with a sustained publication record or gaining experience for career development.

Secondly, being appropriately represented in mid-career on grant panels, on key administration committees and gaining enough management and organisational strategic planning experience.

Thirdly, there was the issue of breaking through the now-notorious glass ceiling.

The report gives a long list of ‘what women perceive to be the problem’ and two in particular resonate with me:

having to work against the perceptions of what women want and what women can do

women having to work harder to convince and persuade their managers that they want and need more responsibility which they see being given to their male colleagues

Every day and all the time, even in this non-scientific role, I am faced with people (mostly men, but not exclusively) who cannot accept that a woman can be an equal partner in business, or that a ‘young girl’ (of 30!) could take on a project of this size and succeed. “Where is my family, my desire to have children, my traditional role as wife?”

Suggestions made in the Greenfield Report which I believe are of relevance to my situation are:

  1. In reference to the difficulty faced by women in returning to SET after a break

…funding should be allocated to enable SETqualified women to retrain and update their skills and knowledge. A fellowship scheme that allows women to study, work on a specific project within a company or undertake research to facilitate a return to academic or private sector employment is urgently needed. It is important to include an element of work experience and management training. This will build on the excellent work of the Daphne Jackson Trust.

I had never heard of the Trust and went looking. It is based at the University of Surrey in Guildford, and the site does terrible things to my internet browser.

  • In relation to the lack of women in senior management posts across the field:

The pool of women with SET qualifications and experience as well as core management skills for senior positions needs to be expanded in order to ensure more women get to senior positions. Large corporations may offer these programmes, but women employed in smaller organisations may not have access to the right training. A high flyer training programme with women drawn from employers and professional institutions will deliver core skills for middle managers to prepare them for senior roles .

Yes, please! I have learned my management techniques by watching senior management at previous jobs: notably my PhD supervisor who was also Dean of the faculty; and the head of IT in the pensions office where I worked after graduating. The head of IT was female, and and extremely effective manager. I owe her a large debt of gratitude for providing me with a model of what management should be like.

Muddling along here as a self-employed hotelier, one of my great frustrations has been the need to learn everything the hard way. There is no-one to learn from, and even when I find a successful way of achieving my aims, I always wonder if there isn’t a better, more effective approach that I’m simply unaware of.

  • To address the fact that women, who are affected by scientific knowledge and science-based policy decisions

A science, engineering and technology advisory panel to the Chief Scientific Advisor to meet, discuss and be consulted on key scientific issues of the day.

The Baroness suggested that this should become gender-balanced within three years, from a starting position of 75% women.

I would love to be involved in something like this: not necessarily because I would provide a female perspective, but because I enjoy the challenge of translating current scientific jargon from the heights of nerdlandia into language which conveys the information accurately to those who have only a basic understanding of science.

The UK Government responded to the Greenfield report with its own strategy:

  1. A new resource centre aimed at supporting, advising and working with SET employers and professional bodies; raising the profile of women in SET; running an expert women’s database; producing good practice guides; and developing a means of recognising good SET employers. The centre will draw on the experience of women and women in science organisations to do this, and co-ordinate their activity to achieve critical mass.
  2. Pump-priming funds held by the centre to support innovative pilot schemes, for example, for mentoring and networking, or to help with mobility needs. The centre will be expected to draw in private sector funds for such projects.
  3. Funds for returners to be held by the centre.
  4. Using cross-Government machinery to ensure that all Government Departments, as employers, contractors for research and agency managers, are good SET employers.
  5. A new independent implementation group to oversee the strategy’s progress and impact during the next two years.
  6. A new role for the Office of Science and Technology Promoting SET for Women Unit.
  7. Improved statistical monitoring, to enable the position of women’s participation in SET to be accurately monitored and tracked.

Of these initiatives, I am currently benefiting from the creation of the Resource Centre, and I hope to benefit from a mentoring scheme in future.


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