Week 4: Issues and strategies for managing work in SET (I)

We have been asked to look at the broader perspective of the issues faced by women in SET using two sources. I will split my comments into several posts, keeping those on each paper separate:

1. ‘Women in science-based employment: what makes the difference?’ by Patricia Ellis in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, February 2003, vol. 23, no. 1.

According to this author, there are several assumptions which have been made about the nature and causes of difficulties in attracting and retaining women in scientific careers. These assumptions are:

  1. Conflict between the timetable of a research career and the biological clock:

    “…the ages of about 25 to 35 are seen as key in establishing reputation through active research productivity and are also those that are considered to be prime childbearing years.”

  2. Perceived difficulties relating to both funding and practise in part-time work:

    “…the current structure of science funding in the United Kingdom is based very heavily on external sources (Wellcome Trust, 2000) and grants allocated are normally based on fulltime posts.”

    “…managers in SET viewed part-time working as problematic to organize and stressed the difficulties rather than the possibilities.”

    “…Part-time workers are often perceived as not as committed to their work or their organization and not as eligible for advancement.”

    “…scientific work may not seem to lend itself to a fixed hour regime, where experiments need to run and be supervised during long periods, and readings have to be taken at regular and possibly odd hours. This will present further obstacles to people who need to work on a predictable timetable because of home responsibilities, and their need to leave at set times can be perceived as a lack of commitment to work.”

  3. Perceived difficulties in resuming a career where technical skills and knowledge are critical, and change rapidly:

    “With progress and change endemic to science (as well as to technology and engineering), new fields open up with ever increasing speed. Women wishing to return to the workforce, even after a few years, may find their skills and knowledge out of date.”

However, the author reminds us that most of these perceived barriers can and have been overcome, and many are specific to academic or research science. Additionally:

“because even women without demanding home responsibilities experience obstacles to advancement, these are not the only factors that have an effect on careers in science. “

Specifically, the author suggests that the retention and advancement of women in science is due to the following factors:

  1. Culture of scientific work:
    The author suggests that science is an inherently male arena, and that as a logical and objective approach is seen as culturally male, women will not be comfortable with the adjustments they have to make in order to succeed.
  2. Organisation of scientific work:
    Purely in physical terms, the author points out that in order to work in science in the UK, one must be willing and able to relocate to one of a few locations where employment can be found. This is more likely to be a problem for women who have family responsibilities, or who are expected to follow when their partner relocates in order to further his career. This kind of time- or location-related disruption can also be detrimental to the development of a professional reputation, which is so important in advancement in the sciences.In addition, the author notes that the lack of a female presence in a workplace can be intimidating to many women.

    “…women working alone are clearly quite visible, and this can operate to their disadvantage. A visible woman will be noticed and given a high profile, but her mistakes tend to be remembered.”

Historically, it was assumed that women were naturally more interested in family and childrearing than in work, and this attitude appears to continue albeit using slightly less overtly sexist language.

The author quotes previous research (published in 1995) where women are seen as either ‘committed’ or ‘not committed’ to their workplace and career, moving freely between these states over the course of a career due to conscious choice.  However, she points out that:

“These arguments could apply equally to women scientists, but it does not help further our understanding of why there seem to be fewer women in the upper echelons of SET, unless one could argue that relatively more female scientists fall into Hakim’s “not committed” category. …. She used this to explain why women remain in low-paid, low-status work, but her argument took no account of any external forces or impediments, which might affect the ability to make such choices. “

Various other authors have attempted to explain the dearth of women in high-level scientific positions using similar arguments, but again these arguments should apply equally to non-scientific careers where the gender gap is far smaller. The author of this paper therefore comes to the conclusion that:

“…the relatively disadvantaged progression of women in the scientific workplace is more likely to be due to the structures of scientific work rather than to choices women scientists are making.”

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1 comment so far

  1. Leslie Feldman on

    The age of the father is critical to the genetic health of the offspring and to the success of the pregnancy in terms of miscarriages, pre-term labor, c-sections, birth weight, etc. The male biological clock and advancing paternal age is the key to understanding human genetic disorders. Just wanted to add this info.
    35 is advanced paternal age too.


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