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Trouble in the pipeline?

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IN 2002, a government-commissioned report called ‘SET fair’ by scientist and peer Baroness Greenfield concluded that a ‘glass ceiling’ existed for women working in science, engineering and technology. It memorably likened their career structure to ‘a leaky pipe’ in which ‘at each level of seniority, fewer women than men make it to the next level’ (VR, December 7, 2002, vol 151, p 681). More than 10 years on, despite various initiatives in the meantime, it seems the pipe is still leaking and the glass ceiling, which should by now be patently visible, is more or less intact.

That is the inescapable conclusion from a report published last week by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) on the subject of ‘Women in scientific careers’.1 The STC's report, which is based on an inquiry undertaken by the committee towards the end of last year, draws almost identical conclusions to the Greenfield report, sadly for much the same reasons. As it states in its conclusion, ‘Our inquiry has not uncovered any new issues on the topic of gender diversity in STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. This indicates that the problems and solutions have long been identified, yet not enough is being done to actively improve the situation . . . It is astonishing that, despite clear imperatives and multiple initiatives to improve diversity in STEM, women still remain under-represented at senior levels across every discipline.’

The STC's report is pertinent for a number of reasons, and not just in the interests of fairness and because equality is important in its own right. As the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee pointed out in a recent report on ‘Women in the workplace’ (VR, June 29, 2013, vol 172, p 670), women comprise over half of the population and, ‘as such, a significant amount of money is invested in them. Ensuring that women, as well as men, have opportunity to realise their maximum potential is, therefore, as much an economic argument as one about equality.’ For its part, the STC, whose report is mainly concerned with careers in academia, points out that the UK needs more skilled scientists and engineers and that ‘this need will not be met unless greater efforts are made to recruit and retain women in STEM careers.’

The STC's report does not consider veterinary academic careers specifically. However, many of its remarks are nevertheless relevant given the recognised difficulties in involving enough vets in research. This remains a significant issue for the veterinary profession. There is no shortage of women wanting to study veterinary medicine, but there is a problem in getting enough vets (of either sex) to pursue a research career. With women accounting for an increasing proportion of veterinary graduates, and veterinary science not being something that can be developed in isolation, the problem could be exacerbated unless the issues identified in the report are addressed.

The report does a good job in identifying the factors that continue to conspire to ensure that women are under-represented in science, particularly at a professorial level. These range from the problems caused by short-term contracts for postdoctoral researchers and the difficulties in taking career breaks at what, for many women scientists, may be a critical stage of their career, to the structural problems and perhaps unconscious biases that might affect recruitment to permanent and more senior posts. Scientists often consider themselves to be objective and unbiased but, the STC points out, studies have shown them to be susceptible to the same biases as everyone else. It also explains how the competitive and too often all-consuming work culture associated with research can work against women and makes the important point that, while competitiveness might be beneficial for science, ‘careers should not be structured in such a way that talented women are deterred from remaining and progressing in STEM.’

Many of the reasons put forward during the STC's inquiry to explain the dearth of women in senior academic posts in these subjects sound plausible and some of them will no doubt ring true for those with experience of working in an academic research environment. However, given that problems have long been recognised, some of them sound more like excuses. As Andrew Miller, the committee's chairman, commented on publication of the report, some universities are doing a good job at improving working conditions for women scientists but others are not, and ‘It's time for universities to pull their socks up.’

At the very least, the various recommendations in the report – aimed at government, the research councils, universities and others – should be implemented. In the meantime, being science-based, the veterinary profession needs to consider the extent to which the kinds of issues discussed in the report might be affecting veterinary research, whether enough is being done to address them and how they might limit future development. This would seem to be particularly important given that women account for about 75 per cent of veterinary undergraduates in the UK.

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