Winning Women in Science, Engineering and Technology in Higher Education

A project funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) to identify good practice in attracting and retaining more women in science, engineering and technology in Higher Education in Scotland.

I ran this project in the mid 90’s. The project team came from Stirling and Dundee Universities and we were funded to create three guides to good practice. The first dealt with increasing women’s Access to science, engineering and technology (SET) courses in Higher Education in Scotland, the second to enhancing women’s Participation and retention and the third their career Progression within SET in Higher Education in Scotland.

We wanted the guides to be more than just lists of current projects (and at career progression stage these were conspicuous by their absence) as the guides would date very quickly. The strength of the project is that we identified a conceptual framework that allowed us to put initiatives into different categories. This would help readers and workers in the field assess the likely impact of an activity then and it is still relevant now. It could also be adapted to apply to other diversity issues.

Since it was a SHEFC funded project we focused on the situation in Scotland but had to look further afield to find examples of activities and initiatives whose aim was to increase the numbers of women, or reduce drop out.

The guides were published in 1997 and launched in Dundee and London. 14 years on I believe it is worth revisiting this base-line in the first article I am contributing to the Mums in Science web-site. Then there were still many SET departments with no women lecturers, and women who were there tended to be disproportionately clustered in low paid, short term or part time positions. Sounds familiar? There’s been progress but women still earn on average about 80% of the salary of their male counterparts and we are moving away from final salary as a basis for pensions towards lifetime average so it is becoming more important still to close the gap. Over the coming months I will look at activities that have helped to move the situation on from the base-line my team identified in the mid nineties.

Winning Women(i) In 1993 the government published the ‘Rising Tide’ report(ii) which identified women as “… the country’s single most undervalued and, therefore, under-used human resource…” and which stated that “… there is massive scope to attract more women into science and engineering…”. As a result of this, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council set up a Women into Science, Engineering and Technology initiative and provided £100k to produce guides to good practice Access, Participation and Progression. In addition in a second phase to the project they funded various projects whose findings were then incorporated into the final versions of the guides.

Underlying Issues
In a knowledge based society it is increasingly important to utilise all the talent. Key to this is the support for a highly educated, flexible and adaptable work force, particularly in the science, engineering and technology areas, as these are linked to wealth creation. In the 80’s with the growth of business accredited colleges and other new university degrees, the numbers of men going into the sciences and engineering was dropping dramatically. Women were under-represented so it would be possible to kill two birds with one stone and get more women into science and engineering degrees. Also, it had been noticed that whenever there is a minority group of students they tend to be better than average so it made sense to try to increase the numbers of women students in subjects where they were under-represented.
Although increasing numbers of women were going to University to study SET subjects and entering SET careers, compared to men there was a greater loss of women at different stages of the career path and it was very difficult for women to come back after a career break or to combine career with children. A common way to describe this is the ‘leaky pipeline’ where you are invited to imagine a garden hose being used to water the garden. If there are lots of holes in the hose much of the water will be lost before it reaches the end. People used this analogy to portray the loss of women from the SET workforce and the recommendation was usually to get more girls and women into SET so that more would reach the end of the pipe. I had problems with this analogy because it conveniently overlooked that if you increase water pressure in a leaky hose you will also lose more water through the holes. If we simply got more girls and women into SET without trying to patch up the gaps through which they were lost, then we would also lose more women. This model also seemed to suggest persistence and career progression would be random – water in the middle of the flow is less likely to escape through a hole.

Catherine, an American systems engineer, developed a model, see fig 1, to describe the progressive loss of women to HE as a multi-layered funnel where barriers to their recruitment and retention act as filters at different sections of the funnel. The guides identified initiatives to widen the various stages of the funnel.

The leaky pipeline approach of ‘get more girls and women in to SET and time will take care of the rest as they work through in greater numbers’ is effectively widening the first section of the funnel. What we hoped to do was create a framework that would help to widen all the other sections of the funnel.
Jill gathered lots of examples of initiatives and projects to increase access to SET.
Catherine found significantly fewer initiatives and activities that aimed to reduce drop-out of young women who had already started an undergraduate or postgraduate SET degree. We identified non-completion as both leaving altogether, and transferring out to another faculty. Both provide routes by which people can be lost to SET degrees. At postgraduate level we identified non-persistence, perhaps writing up for a Masters instead of a PhD, or giving up altogether. We called this non-persistence to distinguish from non-completion as the postgraduate student already had a first degree. Much of the activity in this area was in Europe or North America.

Figure 1 – representation of the progressive loss of women from SET

Ryka and Cassie found there was almost no activity to support women’s career progression in SET in HE. It seemed there was an underlying assumption that if you’ve got what it takes to achieve the first lectureship, you have all the qualities to survive and progress. To me this allows employers to absolve themselves of responsibility to do anything to develop staff on the basis that if staff don’t achieve promotion, or if they leave, it’s because they didn’t have what it takes after all. Employers also don’t need to do anything to ‘close the gap’ between men and women or other under-represented groups because it will sort itself out as the increased intakes work through the system.
Achieving promotion and ultimately a professorship is of course recognition of merit and the assumption persists that not achieving promotion is solely because the person isn’t good enough.
We wanted to do more than just list what was happening as this would mean the guides would be out of date almost as soon as they had been published.

I realised that the “Access” initiatives fell broadly into two main categories. The first was to
Promote Public Understanding of Science through activities such as science fairs, science days. SET is neutral and objective but misunderstood. More able people are required in SET and there would be no difference between the contribution of women and men so if people could see how interesting/fun SET is, more would want to do it. Many of these would be girls and women, and this increase would work its way through the system eventually helping to redress the imbalance. In the mid 90’s there were many public understanding of science events (PUS), Science Festivals such as the Edinburgh or Cheltenham Festivals, SATRO (science and technology regional organisations), after-school clubs, BAYS (British Association young scientist activities), National Science Week and the WISE bus.

The second recognised
SET’s Economic Contribution. There aren’t enough well trained scientists and engineers and numbers of male undergraduates were falling particularly in engineering. SET is seen as neutral and objective and vital for global economic competitiveness so it made sense to target women. The Scottish school curriculum provides science and maths for longer and we found at that time there were more girls in physical sciences courses at University than in England1. Activities that fell into this category were science summer schools and science access courses, including women only courses. Applied degrees and joint degrees might bring in more women, and men.

Women were clearly under-represented in most areas of SET so in these circumstances it is acceptable to Promote Equality of Opportunity. In other words it was acceptable to provide help for them to level the playing field but not to put initiatives like setting quotas in place as that would give them an unfair advantage. To be fair, women who have been appointed as a result of filling quotas often feel tremendous pressure to prove they are as good as their colleagues. Interestingly quotas were set in medicine to get more girls into the profession and I have heard recently that there are currently quotas for men in veterinary medicine because so many well qualified women apply to become vets.

The kind of initiatives that fell into this category were women into science and engineering activities (WISE) such as the WISE bus, women only Access or pre-Access courses, general equal opportunity activities. From this perspective SET is seen as objective and neutral but that gender differences are the result of socialisation and stereotyping and so are amenable to changes that could bring in more women, and more ethnic minority groups. Women coming into SET especially from under-represented groups, are seen as breaking down stereotypes. Many SET employers were keen to employ women graduates because stereotypically they have better social skills and team-working abilities.

At the same time Catherine and Angela had been rationalising participation and progression activities and had identified some underlying positions. Some also came under the Promote Equality of Opportunity umbrella. It is also acceptable to set targets and monitor progress and to put in place mentoring and networking schemes as these help to level the playing field.

In this position people are starting to recognise that things have to change but that the burden lies with women themselves to persist and progress, with support from schemes such as mentoring and networking.
From reviewing feminist literature Catherine and Angela recognised a call to Subject SET to Critical Analysis, our fourth position. This is a pivotal position where people’s attitudes start to transform from seeing there is nothing wrong with the present system, recognising that it might be improved and that improvements would benefit women and men and society. It assumes that SET can’t be neutral as the disciplines are socially constructed and reflect a white, male, Eurocentric standpoint. Understandably many women are ‘turned off’ by this masculine culture of SET and many feminists question whether women should enter SET ‘as is’. I’ve also met men who have rejected the culture of SET and have decided they don’t want to work in the culture despite their love of their subject.

There is a need to analyse the values, structures and culture that underly SET. Analysis leading to change would need to come from within and outside SET.

The preliminary step is to recognise that the culture of Western SET is historically and socially constructed as masculine, that is masculinity is equated with technical competence. Femininity is equated with lack of technical competence. Our fifth position follows, namely to Change SET Culture. This position recognises that SET subjects and careers require more women but that there is a conflict for women between feminine gender identity and the masculine culture of SET. From this perspective it is important to change the system rather than take the view that the burden lies with women to change to fit the system. This would be supported by work to change gender role stereotyping and the masculine culture of SET to be more inclusive of all groups while at the same time encouraging more girls and women to consider SET careers.

Initiatives to change SET structure and culture include curricular developments and teaching and learning strategies, such as peer assisted learning to encourage women to persist at undergraduate stage. Activities targeting women should be supported by other helpful measures such as gender equity training for lecturers, implementation of equal opportunities and policies. To ensure gender equity we should look at selection and interview procedures in recruitment of staff, their retention and promotion including training for panel members.

For enhancing career Progression again initiatives are required at two levels – to support the individual and to work to effect change in the structure and culture of SET.

Although Ryka and Cassie identified very few activities in place within HE in Scotland at the Progression level, we identified possibilities such as developing support networks and mentoring schemes, supporting women through career breaks, providing carer leave for men as well as women or encouraging flexible work practices, again for men and women. Career development is also important, particularly for women on a series of short term contracts while support should be given to permanent women staff to build their careers. Academic age is also an important concept.

To encourage more women to enter and persist in SET, and to make a successful career requires early intervention in schools, curriculum and pedagogical development and ‘culture change’. Effective culture change requires strict implementation of equal opportunities policies, a move away from the ‘workaholic’ culture, recognition of different learning and teaching styles and work patterns, recognition of gender and science issues as valid areas for (women) in SET. Mentoring and networking would also make effective contributions.

Lasting change requires gender-specific information about access, participation and progression patterns, a multidisciplinary approach and a willingness to critique and change SET culture.

i. Project Team comprised Dr Maureen Cooper, Catherine Cronin and Jill Duffield, Stirling University and Angela Roger, Sheila Watt, Ryka Evans and Cassie Higgins, Dundee University
2. White Paper on Science and Technology, “Realising our Potential – A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology”, Cm 2250, May 1993, HMSO

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About Maureen Cooper 3 Articles
I have experienced many of the key aspects of a women scientist's career, short term contracts, dual career, working mother, chemistry lectureship, redundancy, bullying, setting up as a consultant, successful research in women and science issues that doesn't count. I've retrained as a colour therapist and life coach and I am a healer.

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