Women STEM researchers face ‘entrenched gender bias’

Women researchers in science and technology in UK universities face an entrenched bias when being hired or promoted, according to new research.

A small-scale study has found clear evidence that some universities appear to be failing to address problems of sexism.

The research, by Dr Liza Howe-Walsh and Dr Sarah Turnbull, of the University of Portsmouth’s Business School, is published in Studies in Higher Education. It adds to a growing body of research examining the reasons why so few women reach professor level in academia, especially in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Dr Howe-Walsh, an expert in human resources research, policy and practice, said: “Women in science and technology face hurdles due to their gender at every stage of their careers, from recruitment to retirement.

“Many excellent policies exist to address gender issues and make allowances for staff with family responsibilities, but in practice, these policies are often undermined on the ground by a blatant gender bias towards men.”

The authors urge universities to carry out full gender audits of their temporary and short-term contracts and appointments made to senior posts and, if necessary, to make targeted interventions in departments found to have a strong gender bias.

One woman questioned for the research told of how a male colleague on a job interview panel said, “what if she has problems with the children and has to leave halfway through the day”. She told the researchers: “At that point we didn’t even know if she had children.”

Another woman told researchers: “There are a lot of problems, bullying and people being aggressive. I’m talking about big problems, fundamental problems, the fact women are referred to as ‘that stupid woman’. Male colleagues think women should not be there and if they are there, they should take notes and not say anything and not speak up.”

A third said that if she said something during a meeting it would frequently be brushed aside, but if a male colleague then raised the same concern or idea those at the meeting would say “that’s great”.

Many women suffered indirect discrimination, for example, not having their successes celebrated compared to their male colleagues.

Dr Turnbull said: “This might help explain why women feel marginalised. Recognition plays a vital role in career advancement. Despite being high achievers academically, many of those we questioned doubted their own success and ability within the faculty environment.”

Barriers to women highlighted include:

–  a shortage of role models for women, with few reaching professor level;

–  frequent and disproportionate use of short-term contracts for female researchers;

–  women’s research publication record suffering when or if they take career breaks to have children;

–  entrenched male networks, including holding informal but important meetings before work or after work in the pub which women with childcare responsibilities struggled to attend;

–  a lack of confidence among women.

The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 20 female researchers aged 24-58 from three universities. Half worked in science and half in technology.

Dr Howe-Walsh said: “This was a small-scale study and can’t be generalised, but it gives a rich insight into the lives of a handful of women in academia who are intimidated by the male-dominated culture which appears to be thriving within science and technology faculties.

“The challenges for women in reaching senior positions are complex, but it is especially problematic in the science and technology disciplines where for every female professor there will be nine or ten male professors.”

The researchers have now begun a much larger, global quantitative study of men and women in science, technology, engineering and maths roles in universities to discover in much more detail what male and female academics worldwide see as barriers to them gaining promotion and leadership roles.

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