Britain's Sexist Scientists

26 January 2005


A culture flask for cells under the microscope


On 28 November 2002, a report commissioned by the then trade and industry secretary, Patricia Hewitt, warned that Britain's prosperity will suffer if the government does not come up with new money to help women scientists and engineers back to work after having children... 

In my mind there is no doubt that this is true. There is a huge pool of people who have valuable skills and expertise with a solid work ethic (what can be more demanding than bringing up small children?) that are undervalued and under-utilised. The value for money that can be achieved by bringing these women up to speed on any technical developments they may have missed during a family career break is clearly enormous.

Bottom Pinching
At the launch of the report Lady Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University and Director of the Royal Institution, said: "We are past the bottom-pinching stage. It's not so much someone being overtly rude to your face as you feeling that people are prejudiced against you. It's institutional sexism."

In fact, I am sure that individual sexists are working in science like the professor that Nancy Lane recalled saying to a female colleague: "Don't you worry your pretty little head about that." But does institutional sexism really reign in science? The report tells that even back in 1970, almost a half of Britain's bioscience graduates were women. Yet women make up only 9% of bioscience professors today, suggesting thousands of promising careers have fallen by the wayside. Let me repeat that: "women make up only 9% of bioscience professors today, suggesting thousands of promising careers have fallen by the wayside."

Lies, damn lies and statistics...
Statistics like this, and their interpretation, call to mind the aphoristic "Lies, damned lies and statistics" (of Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli depending on your source!). The fact that only 9% of bioscience professors today are women may indeed represent some sexist hindrance of their careers in the past but I would not be surprised if the figure never reaches 50%. The reason for this is that women may choose to go a different route than try to ambitiously climb the career ladder. Men may also choose a different route, but more women want to give up work or take time out when they have children than do their partners.

Freedom of choice
By choosing to take a career break to have children, women will naturally put themselves at a disadvantage on the career ladder compared to their (male and female) colleagues who have not taken a break because they will have experience. Where possible, when they go back to work mothers may even choose to work fewer hours to get the balance of home and work life that they desire. Again this would reduce the chances of getting to the top of the career ladder but surely that's part of the decision? We should not be concerned with the proportion of professors that are women but that women are free to choose the path that they want to take. More money for retraining after a career break is central to this and flexible working hours should be offered where possible. However, branding science as institutionally sexist because some women choose not to vigorously develop their career is offensive to all scientists of both sexes and more likely to dishearten young female scientists than encourage them...


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