To Create Gender Equality in STEM Workplaces Must Change.

Science Mag_fig1_jpg1_Scissors of DeathSource: ScienceMag.org. Data from the Third European Report on Science and Technology, 2003,http://www.dife.de/~mristow/2003EU_3rd_report.pdf

What can the disciplines of science, engineering and technology do to increase their female workforce and stop the well documented drop-off of women from the workforce over time?  In the fields of science and technology (STEM) the phenomenon of the so called Gender Scissors or “Jaws- of-Death” or “Scissors-of-Death” is widespread.  The Jaws-of-Death phenomenon is a measurement of male and female participation rates in the disciplines of science and engineering throughout their careers, measured by age.  Due to encouragement of young female students to study STEM subjects in high-school and increased enrollment of female students in STEM courses at university, the gender gap has closed significantly over recent years and almost closed completely in some sciences at this early career stage.  However looking into the future lives of female and male scientists and engineers, female participation rates drop off significantly in comparison to male participation rates.  The Jaws-of-Death graph blatantly shows the loss of women from the field of science and engineering as they age.  In scientific academia there is a marked difference between female and male participation rates, in the EU, only 33% of researchers are female and only 21% of top level academic roles were filled by women in 2015 (1).  In science and engineering the number of women in in top level positions is even scarcer at 13% in 2013 (1).

There are a number of reasons this may occur, but the most startlingly obvious reason is that these professions are not easy for women to stay and to excel.  There are a number of factors in these professions that affect women’s participation rates.  Much the way business is done in these professions means that the odds are stacked against women right from the start and opposing factors only increase against women as they age and try to progress in their careers.

This should not be seen as the fault of women but as a fault in the system. By loosing such large numbers of women from STEM or keeping women subjugated to lower positions due to the ingrained workings of a poor system, the system in place is in effect causing a “brain-drain”, a loss of potential, and a loss of economic benefit that would have been gained if those women were able to stay in STEM related work or to advance their careers.

So what are the major obstacles in the system that women have to overcome?  There are much documented and studied obstacles such as unconscious bias and the gender pay gap, but there are also more physical boundaries such as the availability of maternity leave and flexibility for employees in the workforce.  Business holds a lot of the cards when it comes to negotiating workers hours, and the fields of science and engineering have very low unionisation rates. Low unionisation means women will often be left to negotiate their contracts one on one with an employer, and they will be expected to offer similar hours of labour as male employees if they want to receive coveted roles or permanent positions.  Because of a desire by many women for flexibility, they are often forced by lack of choice and lack cooperation by employers into precarious part time contract and casual work.

The professions of scientist and engineer were male dominated occupations for centuries.  The fields have consequently developed into occupations where it is standard for employers to expect very long hours of work and high output.  Hours of work far past your standard 40 hour week. Many scientists and engineers work weekends as well as week days, and might work away from home for months on end.  As a consequence of this high benchmark for permanent positions, people who want flexibility have much lower bargaining power and much less chance of finding secure work.

There are a number of problems for women trying to work inside this construct. For starters, flexibility is very important for many women, and not just women who have or want to have children.  Many women require adequate recreation time to perform well, and don’t want to work more than 40 hours a week.  Women who are planning a family or have children want to be able to balance their family and work life without risking their career.  It is well known that many women feel they are forced out of STEM professions after having children.  In general, only women with a lot of additional support from their partners, family or already in well paid positions find it possible to stay in STEM after having children, and even then they often talk of it being a struggle.  When you talk to mothers who have been successful in science and technology, they have usually had very supportive husbands, partners or parents who were able to help a lot with children or have been able to afford nannies.  Women who don’t have support, which far out number those with sufficient support are the ones who drop out, and they are dropping out in huge numbers.

If the structure of work could be changed it would benefit not only women, but men who also suffer from being away from home and family for long periods.  For example, the field of academic science is highly competitive.  Scientific teams work long hours and are in metaphorical vicious and eternal competition with their scientific rivals to produce quality novel research and to produce it first.  Academic scientists compete with each other for accolades, for grants, for jobs and for recognition by their peers.  This has built an environment of extreme individual competitiveness where scientists often feel they cannot risk taking time off for fear of falling behind.  God knows, some team in the US or China might make the discovery first!  God forbid they might publish first!  Young academic scientists want to be the lead author, to gain the recognition they feel they deserve, to be Joe Blogs, et al. and not be one of the seemingly unrecognised and forgotten “et al.”, just a footnote at the end of a paper, a name no-one will ever remember.

Other reasons for leaving work in STEM are also commonly sighted, such as nepotism and “jobs for the boys” at higher management levels.  These problems could be addressed by stricter hiring criteria based on merit rather than favouritism, friendship networks or poor interview based character assessments.

I suggest that if the field of academic science could be completely restructured and more value put on people as a whole rather than on an individuals output, not only would women be able to stay in STEM, but the increased workforce and increased diversity would surely improve science.  This would mean a greater emphasis on a teams output rather than on individuals trying to outshine each other.  Increased availability of job share and flexibility so that two or three scientists could perform the work that one scientist working a 60 or 70 hour week currently performs.  A greater emphasis on sharing knowledge and working together as a group rather than on gaining individual recognition.

To achieve this a number of elements in science need to change, from the way scientists are hired to the flexibility afforded to scientists in the workforce, and the way that academic journals publish scientific papers and grants are distributed.  There needs to be is a greater focus on quality teams rather than bright stars. If everyone is chasing their Nobel Prize or equivalent, a situation of survival of the fittest arises and many bodies will be pushed aside.

How fitting that academic science has become a prime example of Darwinism.  But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can change. I read a sign recently that said in my loose translation from Dutch “Expecting change, without doing anything yourself is like waiting for a boat at a train station”.  We can make STEM work more accessible to women (and men) but change needs to occur and people and organisations have to be willing to make change.

We can’t expect women to stay in work in a deeply flawed system. And we can’t expect the system to change on it’s own.  We have to see the problems and be willing step up and fix the system so that it better serves us and helps us to build the kind of society that we want live in.  A society where women can be successful scientists and engineers and don’t have to overcome massive hurdles.  A society where the decision whether or not to have children will not massively impact or end your future career.  Having children or simply being male has never stopped men from being scientists or engineers and parental status or gender shouldn’t stop women either — and if it does, we have to change that.

1. SHE Figures 2015, URL: http://www.genderportal.eu/sites/default/files/resource_pool/she_figures_2015-final.pdf date accessed 25/6/2018.

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