Week 5: Women and SET – attitude, culture and practice of the workplace

In their recent report ‘Good Practice in University Departments’ the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Athena Project describe the ‘fantasy’ Chemistry Department at the University of Utopia (file available only to OU students at this stage). Does this cover all the things on your list or live up to your ideal brief description? For indications of workplace culture in the private sector, the website wherewomenwanttowork.com is a useful resource.

The Times has provided a useful list of the criteria used when evaluating employers.

There is also an analysis available online of the top 100 US companies to work for from the perspective of working mothers.

Both lists show similar characteristics, and I wonder again how well these translate into small/medium sized businesses without the resources or manpower of large multinationals.


Week 5: Women and SET – the legal framework

The Equal Opportunities Commission is working to eliminate sex discrimination in Britain today. It is (or should be) the first point of reference for anyone looking for information on gender equality in the UK.


  1. Am I entitled to apply for flexible working?
    If you have a child who is under 6 or a disabled child under the age of 18 and have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks you are entitled to request flexible working arrangements from your employer.
  2. Is it legal to apply for time off to look after a dependant?
    Each parent can apply to take up to 13 weeks of parental leave up until the child’s 5th birthday. You are also entitled to take time off to care for other dependants.
  3. Can my employer make me do overtime if I don’t want to?
    Under the Working Time Regulations you can’t be forced to work more than 48 hours a week.  Well, unless you’ve signed an opt-out as part of your contract anyway….
  4. If I want to apply for a job share, do I have to find someone else to share the job with?
    Once your employer has agreed that your job is suitable for job-share then it is their responsibility to find an appropriate partner for you to work with.
  5. As a part time worker would I be entitled to the same career development and training opportunities as a full time employee?
    Yes, Regulations make it unlawful for a part-time worker to be treated less favourably than comparable full-time workers.
  6. Can an employer ask me about childcare arrangements in an interview?
    Although an employer is entitled to ask questions to ensure that you are able to carry out the requirements of the job this should be in a gender neutral way and all candidates should be asked the same questions.

Week 5: Women and SET – some solutions

According to the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, major barriers to the progress of women in their chosen field include:

  • the absence of family-friendly practices during family formation phase

  • slow take up of work–life balance policies

  • lack of affordable childcare

  • pay gap

  • lack of transparency in pay and promotion

  • short-term contracts

  • SET is less flexible than non-SET

  • attitude, culture and practice of the workplace

  • intangible cultural factors slowing progression

  • few role models and mentors.

Two complimentary approaches to tackle these are proposed: legislation outlawing discrimination, and education on the economic case for diversity.

Week 4: Employers’ diversity policies

Do some research on specific employers’ diversity policies. If possible include employers that you might be interested in working for. You may be able to do this by looking at employers’ websites. Here are some examples to get you started, but you can also look for other companies if you want.


Do these companies have diversity policies? Do they say anything about structures to encourage flexible working practices; work–life balance issues; challenging stereotypes; continuing professional development; training in diversity; staff satisfaction surveys; and childcare policies and schemes?

Later.  Much later.  This is not a priority – and I’m short on sleep and free time!


Read Section 4 from the EC report, A vision for 2010: opportunities and approaches, pages 28–30.


The report reads very like the Mission Statement Generator at Dilbert.

“One approach to changing organisations and their cultures to increase the representation and participation of women is to apply the EU-backed approach of ‘gender mainstreaming’,  … to industrial research. But what is gender mainstreaming? It is‘integrating gender equality into all organisations and their cultures, into policies, programmes and projects, into ways of “seeing and doing”’ (Rees, 1998). Instead of targeting the ‘special needs’ of the ‘disadvantaged group’, it focuses on practices and policies that give rise to that disadvantage in the firstplace. “

Right, OK.  So what you’re basically saying is that you need to look at your employees as people, rather than as male employees, female employees, pink/blue/purple employees….  Fairly obvious, I would have thought.  Everyone has a life outside of work (or at least I would hope so) and any employer who ignores that fact is unlikely to have a happy or loyal workforce.

The paper appears to take an unusual view of where the responsibility for career development lies:

“Companies in industrial research need to take active responsibility for building the careers of their employees, …”

Which is of course the opposite of the whole idea of continuous personal development which has been touted throughout this course: the employee takes responsibility for building their own career, on the assumption that no employer will do so.

Good practice in this area includes focusing on prejudice in promotion, retention, returning and recruitment, and putting systems in place to counteract any unintentional bias.

In terms of promotion, action could include:

  • monitoring succession plans to check for the inclusion of under-represented groups in promotion to top positions and setting aspirationaltargets for their increase.
  • analysing current career paths and success criteria used in promotions. Identifying blockages that hinder women’s progress.
  • ensuring that development plans include experience of other parts of theorganisation – different functions or different geographic locations – aswell as relevant off-the-job activities (possibly even include managing a home!).
  • ensuring that women receive support from internal networks (e.g. female managers, professional organisations, a helpline, etc)
  • offering opportunities for ‘work shadowing’ (spending a day or week following and observing a board member doing their daily work) in the boardroom or in top management teams.

In terms of avoiding prejudice in recruitment, retention and return:

  • planning ‘returner’ and ‘keeping in touch’ schemes, as well as confidence building for those who are or have been out of the company for a while.
  • taking into account the fact that ‘dual careers’ may mean men and women require jobs for their partners in the company or the vicinity.
  • providing childcare or subsidising childcare costs (if there is insufficient affordable, good quality, public childcare available),
  • offering careers breaks, flexibility and part-time working, for men and women.
  • offering exchanges with researchers in the public sector, in keeping with other EU policies on mobility.

Umm: in your dreams!  The other papers we have been given to read have emphasised that the only way a company is going to provide ‘family friendly’ conditions is if they can see a benefit to their own, short-term, bottom line.  Women needing flexible working conditions have spoken of the difficulties in arranging even part-time work, or a planned career break – never mind company-provided childcare and jobs-for-partners!

According to this paper, there are a number of characteristics of women-friendly employers:

  • they have examples of ‘real’ role models (not superwomen).
  • they send women to represent the company at external events (conferences/analysts meetings/launch events, etc).
  • they organise mentoring and networking schemes, to ensure that there are sufficient women around to avoid a feeling of isolation.
  • they encourage girls into science by participating in ‘take your daughters to work’ days and ‘girls and science days’.
  • they send women scientists to schools and universities to deliver the message about the excitement of science in industry in schools liaison programmes.
  • they organise properly managed summer student (internship) schemes, a valuable way of enticing students of high potential to join the company and generating good PR.
  • they use internships to award fellowships and scholarships, hence developing relationships with high-potential female candidates.

Well, I suppose it’s something to be aware of – I certainly wouldn’t expect to find it in a small or medium-sized business!

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

Make a list of the issues that relate to you in returning to SET employment. For example, what would be the barriers for you to work part time? Do they relate to the type of work you might do because of the need to work unsocial hours due to the continuous running of experiments in a laboratory for example, or are these barriers concerned more with attitudes of others to part time working, or the funding situation for research?

I’m in an odd position here in that I’m trying to plan for a return to SET before I have a family….  My current situation is a consenquence of following my partner’s career choice and location: it needed both of us to make this business a success.

My reading around the subject, including the last two papers mentioned, suggests that I am not alone in my concern that I have an impossible choice to make: I can either be a well-educated, successful career woman, or I can be a mother, but trying to combine both is likely to result in a greatly reduced chance of a successful career.  In addition, trying to balance the developmental needs of children with the time and emotional demands of a senior position, unless you choose to pay someone else to bring up your children, can result in both family and career suffering equally.

It seems that I am not the only woman who has come to the conclusion that neither option is good: the Herald published an article  highlighting the number of women who have chosen to leave corporate life and combine motherhood with self-employment.

 “It comes as no surprise to many high-powered businesswomen that their sisters are turning their backs on senior management positions in several major British companies.Tell them that the drop is 40% over the last five years, however, and there’s likely to be an audibly shocked intake of breath, followed by a list of the hostile elements of corporate culture.

That is one of the main factors driving more women to set up their own businesses: the number of self-employed women in the UK has recently risen above one million for the first time.”

 The research mentioned was done by Pricewaterhouse-Coopers:

It revealed senior management posts filled by women in Britain’s top 350 quoted companies has dropped from 38% in 2002 to 22%. Sarah Churchman, head of diversity at PwC, pinpoints a trend which suggests that there will be fewer women in the very top positions in the future.

‘Businesses tend to pay more attention to gender issues in senior positions and there appears to be an assumption that a supply from the middle ranks will eventually feed through. For big companies at least, this pipeline is shrinking at a worrying rate,’ she says.

So, the barriers to my re-entry into SET employment are:

  1. I currently live over 50 miles from the nearest potential SET employment as far as I can tell.

  2. I would need to bring in £30k a year to cover staffing to replace myself in the company.

  3. I would like, at some point, to make the change from couple to family.

  4. I am not prepared to work part-time if the result of that is the end of my chances of promotion.  I am ambitious and driven, and expect as much of colleagues as I do of myself: I suspect I would end up trying to do both jobs full-time, and burn myself out.

 Life’s a bitch, isn’t it?

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

The second source provided is:

‘Career and motherhood in engineering: cultural dimensions and individualistic solutions’ by Julia Evetts in the Journal of Gender Studies, July 1994, vol 3 issue 2, pages 177–185.

The author of this paper has used 15 specific women’s careers as a means of investigating:

“…how women reconcile being women, being in partnerships and sometimes families, being professional engineers and building careers in an industrial organization.”

That sounds like a reasonable approach, although I’d love to see a similar study on the difficulties men face in reconciling being in partnerships and families with being professional engineers!

One option, and that taken by four women in the study, was to choose to remain child-free and focus on the career.  The author noted that while successful, this was a particularly harsh choice, and one not faced (or not faced to the same extent) by career-minded men.

“…it seems that for both men and women to succeed in career terms, they must severely curtail the demands of personal and family lives.”

For the mothers in the study, the norm appeared to be that each had to negotiate her own working conditions directly with her immediate manager, and then on up the line of command.

One of the women was on a career break negotiated with her employers after the birth of her (unexpected) third child.

“It is a great responsibility in fact to see how it works.  I have felt that all along.  So few women have taken part-time working or career breaks or come back after maternity leave in the company, that if I don’t perform well they will say it doesn’t work, we won’t try it again.”

All the women commented on how difficult it was to achieve the balance they wanted between career and motherhood, and on the need to focus on what their employer needed/wanted over and above what they needed/wanted, and on how each woman would need a different solution to her own situation.

“They followed the examples set by other women engineers in the company but they did not expect company arrangements or trade union procedures to help solve their problems.”

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.”

Week 4: Online database searching

The OU has an excellent tutorial known as Safari relating to finding, organising and evaluating information. Guest access is permitted, although I am not certain how much of the site is available to non-OU students.

We are supposed to search for articles of relevance to women’, ‘science’, ‘technology’, ‘careers’, ‘career break’, ‘gender’ and ‘work’ and share one with the tutor group along with our explanation of why we felt it was worth reading.

I chose to search for women* AND science AND career* which gave me 121 hits to wade through and resulted in 29 articles I thought worth further investigation. I regard this as manageable, but also refined the list by the addition of tradition* which narrowed things down to 11 articles.

The article I was most interested in isn’t available in the OU library: Chemical & Engineering News is a journal put out by the American Chemical Society, and is available online.

Marasco, C A (2005) Mentornet supports women in science Chem. Eng. News 83 v.20: 55-56, 58, 60.

There are many barriers to women’s success in traditional male-dominated careers, such as science, maths and engineering. A global electronic mentoring network, MentorNet, has been working to alleviate these issues by pairing female graduates and undergraduates in these disciplines with mentors from industry, government and academia.

Mentornet was founded in 1997 by Carol B. Muller, formerly associate dean of engineering at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. At Dartmouth College, she co-founded a Women in Science Project and was instrumental in setting up an e-mentoring scheme linking about 40 students with mentors. After leaving the college to move to California she put together a national advisory group, obtained grant money from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Intel, and created a strategic and business plan. Mentornet now has 14 000 members, and about 2/3 of the mentors are women.
Benefits to mentees include the obvious one of support from their mentor, but also:

…strategies for studying and stress and time management, as well as career management.

Mentornet appears to focus mostly on providing mentors for students, but:

…the program will continue to expand to include all underrepresented groups and increase the number of people who participate. Other plans include developing auxiliary services, such as a registry of women faculty in science and engineering to complement the existing résumé database, adding a professional résumé database, and forging mentoring programs that might serve more early-career and other professionals.

In the UK, the Resource Centre for Women in SET offers a similar scheme which appears to be more widely applicable.

Week 4: Women in SET (career breaks)

For this part of the course, we are provided with two audio programs featuring interviews with women who have taken career breaks and successfully returned to SET.

Only one features a woman in a similar situation to mine: she did several post-docs, married a cameraman and worked with him, got divorced, and returned to research through a fellowship from the Daphne Jackson Trust. As I’m not planning to go back to the bench at this stage, and have already been down the route of starting my own business, none of the suggestions for getting back into the workforce provided in these programs are likely to be of use to me.

Reading around the topic again:

From the Royal Society of Chemistry website (members only section)

Knowledge and skills

You will find returning to work after your break very difficult if you have not kept your knowledge and skills up to date. In today’s job market, even a short break can leave you out of touch and less attractive to employers unless you can demonstrate up-to-date knowledge of current practice.

  • Keep in touch with colleagues at your former workplace – meet up with them socially to discuss developments
  • Are there any opportunities for part-time or freelance work? Consider editing and proof reading papers and publications, working limited hours or covering holiday and sick leave
  • Continue to read journals, newspaper articles, books and magazines to stay with your specialist area of expertise – use the RSC’s Library and Information Centre to reduce this expense.
  • Keep up your membership of the RSC and subject groups.
  • Consider what networking opportunities you have

Information sources
Identify information sources to help you research and stay in touch with the job market:

  • Use business directories such as Kompass to obtain information about companies and what they are doing
  • Contact companies and education institutions directly and ask for information – annual reports are a useful source
  • Request information about specific jobs even if you do not intend to make a formal application. Most applications will provide you with a job description and a person specification. You can keep track of what skills are valued in the employment market

Now those are suggestions that I can and will follow up on!

Week 4: Women in SET (that’s me II)

I’ve been reading around the subject a little, and have come up with some slightly less academic sources:

From ScienceCareers.org comes a very good article (published in 2003) titled What does it take for Women to stay in Academic Chemistry?. The gist of the response is:

Little more, it seems, than openness, friendliness, support from both their peers and superiors, and good management. “The most important finding to support best practice is that the best departments have almost no measures targeted at women,” says Coe. “It is the culture that is supportive of all staff and of diversity. And there, men and women are thriving.”

It may not be a pure coincidence that the two most women-friendly departments in the study were led by young heads who were themselves halves of dual-career couples with children. In these departments, not only is a healthy work-life balance encouraged, but there is also no assumption that women who want to have a family are not committed.

In addition, the article adds a well-placed note of caution regarding changes targeted specifically at women:

…if gender measures may raise the number of women in the short term, they also present the “danger of reinforcing these barriers” in the longer term, says Coe. For a start, they could buttress stereotypical attitudes towards women’s careers in science. Indeed, if women were, say, granted enough flexibility to switch between research and lecturing relative to family commitments, for example, the emphasis on research excellence in academia means that women would be further marginalised. Furthermore, women-targeted measures may raise the barriers to a full-time academic career. For instance, while some departments have raised salaries to help with childcare costs, this extra money has to come from departmental resources, and women fear it may increase the pressures within a department and in the end make it a less female-friendly place to work.

And, from the Royal Society of Chemistry comes an article first published in Chemistry World in 2005 “Ambitious women scientists held back.

The researchers discovered that 36 per cent of female senior lecturers have ambitions to become a member of senior management, compared with 29 per cent of male senior lecturers. And 68 per cent of female professors wish to become head of a research group, compared with 49 per cent of their male counterparts. However, the data show that a higher proportion of men than women actually go on to key, high profile roles and responsibilities.

Part of the problem seems to be that women are often not encouraged to advance their careers in science.

I have been dismayed on reading many of these articles. I had thought (a fairly common belief, it seems) that feminism had fought and won its major battles years ago. I will be more aware, and more proactive, in future.