26 March 2010
Nature 18Feb2010: A step towards transparency
Nature 18 February 2010
A step towards transparency
The lot of women scientists would improve with more openness in policy and practice, argues Jan Bogg.
Policy-makers and university administrators have long wrangled over the barriers that hinder women’s advancement in science. But there is one clear and obvious step many at universities and in industry could take in short order: improve transparency so that both the statistics of those who advance, and the process itself, are readily apparent.
My recent work, part of a project called Breaking Barriers, found that women, especially those at junior and mid-level grades, believe they do not experience sufficient transparency of information, policy and practice. The project included quantitative and qualitative interviews with more than 5,000 UK women working in various science posts, including research scientists, academics and health professionals.
Women in academia wanted transparency in terms of teaching load and its impact on research time. They also wanted consistent career-progress information from senior staff that reflected university policy — for example, if a human-resources document states that “an international reputation” is required to reach senior levels in academia, what does this really mean? Is it referring only to high-impact journal publications? Or are there more wide-ranging criteria?
Take one example in which providing statistics could help inform current and prospective female employees. In the United Kingdom, the General Medical Council has recognized that academic medicine is failing to attract and retain women, and that very few women reach the sector’s highest levels.
Currently, almost 60% of UK medical students are female. But the higher the level, the rarer women become. Around 40% of lecturers are women, 28% of senior lecturers and 13% of professors. The number of women in professorial posts has increased by only 2% since 2004.
Reporting on the number of women in senior positions may seem a crude practice, but it does provide transparency and a basis for identifying blockages in the system. If the proportion of women in senior positions in an organization does not reflect the proportion in the grade below, then there is a need to investigate why this might be the case.
Change is happening, yet figures from many UK professional bodies demonstrate just how slow the progress is — with the number of senior women rising at a snail’s pace. For example, the Sex and Power report, produced by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission, examines women in the top positions of power and influence across the public and private sectors. It estimates that at the current rate it will be 73 years until there are equal numbers of men and women among the directors of the 100 leading companies on the stock exchange.
More needs to be done. Institutions should offer training in an attempt to alter attitudes, and should consider sanctions for managers who provide inadequate performance reviews or poor mentoring. Only by addressing such issues now will the next decade focus on real progress for women in science careers.
Jan Bogg is director of Breaking Barriers, a European Commission-funded programme addressing equality, diversity and career progression for women at the University of Liverpool, UK.