Women in Research

The University is in the process of applying for membership of the Athena SWAN Charter a processing being led by Professor Tiantian Zhang (Head of Graduate School).  Athena’s aims for- the advancement and promotion of the careers of women in science, engineering and technology in higher education and research and involves the University accepting six key charter principles, namely:

i.     To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organization
ii.     To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organization
iii.     The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organization will examine
iv.     The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organization will address
v.     The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organization recognizes
vi.     There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organization

This development is a welcome one and an important step forward for a modern and progressive University such as ours.  The need to support and promote women in research is clear and I am sure that few would argue against this but if in doubt the need was elegantly made by a recent report published by the Royal Society of Chemistry on the ‘Chemistry PhD: the impact on women’s retention’.  One of the striking figures from this report is that only 12% of third year female PhD students want a career in academia and that young women scientists leave academia in far greater numbers than men.  This set me thinking about the issues more generally and much of what is identified in the report based on a review of Chemistry Department is no doubt relevant across all research sectors.  In particular I was struck by the phrase ‘women do not wish to pursue an academic career . . . because they perceived the rewards on offer insufficient to overcome the challenges and compromise entailed’.  The career being: to all-consuming, leading to compromise and sacrifice in other aspects of life; overly competitive and insecure in terms of tenure especially while post-docing; and poorly supported in terms of sound and fair advice which is often unduly negative.  It was the last point that made stop and think most; what sort of advice do we provide, what sort of role models do we project and how do we encourage, mentor and support future academics of whatever gender?  There is a lot in this and I would be interested in your views on this subject, especially from our own graduate students.