Women in 'male' careers still face barriers - New report

10/10/05

Women working in some traditionally male careers still face major personal and professional barriers to success, despite efforts by Government and other bodies to reverse this trend, new research shows.

Some women interviewed by researchers from University of Newcastle upon Tyne's Small Enterprise Research Unit had even chosen not to have children because they believed it hindered their career progression in the male-dominated science and technology (SET) field.

Those with families said they were often prevented from taking part in career-developing activities such as travelling abroad and attending conferences because childcare was often a problem. Many claimed they had been 'weeded out' of the career structure before they had reached their potential or acceded to the higher-level positions that their qualifications and experience merited.

The report also found there were three times as many male employees as women in SET firms surveyed. The average firm had ten male employees compared to only four female employees. Only one in ten women worked in research and development jobs and other scientific and technical activities, compared with 60 per cent of their male counterparts.

However, many ideas on how the UK could change for the better and encourage more women into science and technology careers are also made by the authors of the report, Gender Gap in the Scientific Labour Market (1).

One of the recommendations is that a platform for female scientists, to enable them to act as role models and mentors for schoolgirls and women considering scientific careers should be established through the Science City initiative, in which the University is playing a leading part. Newcastle has been designated as one of six Science Cities in a Government-backed programme aimed at boosting the country's international competitiveness.

The report surveyed sixty small and medium sized SET businesses based in North East England and 30 female employees via questionnaires and face-to-face interviews (2). It was funded by the Government Office for the North East; the European Union's Social Fund, and the Economic and Social Research Council Science in Society Programme.

The findings reflect recent figures from other sources which show that, in the UK, the number of female SET graduates ran at just over 80,000 compared with around 400,000 men. Women account for 25 per cent or less of the workforce in some SET-related industry sectors compared to 80 per cent in health and social work and 45 per cent for all sectors.

The Government and other bodies have made several efforts to readdress the balance but the number of women reaching high positions in science is still much lower in the UK compared to the USA and many other European countries.

Professor Pooran Wynarczyk, director of Newcastle University's Small Enterprise Research Unit and lead author of the report, said: "Our study shows that there is a need to find solutions for barriers that prevent women from entering the scientific labour market, or we will soon find an even greater shortage of highly-skilled SET employees.

"Achieving full and equal participation of women in all scientific disciplines and at all levels, particularly innovation, will enhance diversity, and promote further progress and excellence in Europe.

She added: "If women are not visibly represented in SET and seen to be enjoying a rewarding career, they are unlikely to be able to act as role models and serve the purpose of further recruitment and retention."

Findings from the report included:

  • In total there were three times as many male employees as women in firms surveyed. The average firm had ten male employees compared to only four female employees.
  • Although 40 per cent of the enterprises had women managers, only two per cent held scientific-related managerial positions, and the majority were employed in the traditionally female administrative and personnel sectors.
  • 70 per cent of the participants were married, divorced or lived with a partner, but only 35 per cent had children. - Only one in ten women worked in research and development (R&D) jobs and other scientific and technical activities, compared with 60 per cent of their male counterparts. However, only one in hundred women worked in industrial R&D. - Many women cited professional barriers to progression such as institutional sexism, informal male networks, male-dominated senior management team, male-biased incentives such as attending football matches.
  • Personal barriers such as lack of confidence and self-esteem were mentioned, as well as a lack of female scientist role models, lack of support from teachers, lack of information on SET-related careers and low expectations of girls in SET education.
Recommendations for change include:
  • As part of the Science City initiative, the need to establish and promote a platform for female scientists from both the private and public sector to encourage girls and women to enter the SET field. Also the need to identify and publicise scientific companies and organisations that promote gender participation.
  • The need to establish Regional Centres of Excellence for Women in SET, an inclusive initiative between educational establishments, regional development agencies and employers.
  • Data collection in the scientific activities (e.g., patent) should include a gender dimension, so participation of both sexes can be scrutinised more closely. This data could be used to inform policy on gender representation in the SET fields.
  • Schools and companies should invest in laboratories and communication to address health and safety concerns raised by women working with chemicals and other substances.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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