Science sector plagued by institutionalised sexism

Dec 01 2002 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Male-dominated decision making, sexual harassment, pay inequality and a poor attitude towards work-life balance adds up to “institutionalised sexism” in the science, engineering and technology sector, according to a damming government-commissioned report undertaken by a committee of female scientists.

The committee, chaired by Baroness Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, reveals that while the science, engineering and technology (SET) sector may have “got past the bottom-pinching stage”, it is still plagued by still extensive unspoken prejudice that is exacerbated by outdated employment practices and skewed career structures.

“Attitude, culture and practice in the workplace need to change in the public and

the private sector, to reduce attrition at all levels of scientific, engineering and

technology-related employment,” the report says.

But even though the under-representation of women in science, engineering and technology threatens the UK’s global competitiveness, many employers seem unconcerned.

One particular criticism levelled by the report is that take-up of work-life balance policies among science and engineering employers is low. While many organisations have adopted formal or informal flexible working policies “others see such programmes as an expensive overhead and continue to operate in a manner that does not achieve work-life balance and continues to marginalize women by excluding them from decision-making.”

Significantly, of the Sunday Times list of 100 best companies to work for, only two pharmaceuticals and one construction employer in the top 50 along with nine IT / electronics firms. Of these, only four are British-owned.

Women in SET have few visible role models or mentors, suffer from gender imbalance in the decision-making process and receive inadequate transparency in pay and promotion procedures. Indeed, while the Bett Report, published in 1999, showed that an inequality exists in the pay of men and women employed within SET higher education and that, even at professorial level, women earn an average of six per cent less than men, a recent AUT findings have shown that the pay gap for women has actually widened in the past five years.

“Issues prevalent across UK employment, such as work-life balance, lack of affordable childcare and attitudes towards family responsibilities are reinforced by the pay gap and are felt more acutely in SET employment because of the low numbers of women and the sense of isolation that often does not manifest itself until the early thirties.”

The committee found that it is particularly hard for those in the SET sector to take career breaks to have children because of the need to keep up to date with the latest research. Moreover, the publication record that is essential to a successful research-based career is heavily compromised by a career break.

In its conclusion, the report makes four practical recommendations that it hoeps can begin to redress the balance. The establishment of a Working Science Centre to act as a focus for organisations, networks and initiatives; a returners’ scheme linked to the sector skills councils or delivered through the Open University and University for Industry; formal reporting on the diversity measures adopted by SET employers; and a part- time/job-sharing incentive programme to help employers deliver change.

“ There are no part- time jobs and no job share schemes. I have two young sons and am out of work, largely due to the cost of childcare. I fear my career is at an end, as I don’t think I will be able to rejoin the full-time, long-hours culture. I have been described as outstanding and a problem solver, but I feel I have been forced out of my profession because I am 20 years too early in wanting a family and a career. I have had to listen to offensive jokes at industry dinners, been asked illegal personal questions at job interviews , seen the issue of women almost wilfully ignored by my professional institution, journal and employers, been talked about unpleasantly behind my back by my superiors when I first became pregnant, and read salary surveys which tell me women in my profession are routinely paid up to 35 per cent less than the men. A massive culture change needs to take place and there are many decent men who would be willing to participate . Few in positions of power even recognise that a problem exists.”

Anonymous case study cited in the Greenfield Report

A PDF of the full report can be downloaded from:”>