Photo: Juan Barredo
This month, a report published by leading European research group, Gender in Science, entitled ‘Recommendations for Action on the Gender Dimension in Science,’ reveals that there remains a clear gender divide in certain professional fields.
Specifically, the report draws attention to the fact that women remain under-represented in what are collectively termed the ‘SET’ subjects, Science, Engineering and Technology, despite having made significant advancements in other traditionally male-dominated fields such as Business, Law and Medicine.
With the SET sectors representing some of the most dynamic and economically viable in the UK, the question remains as to why so few women are choosing to pursue careers in them. Why are fields that offer both professional growth and academic advancement not being pursued by female graduates?
Research published by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) would suggest that the male/female disparity witnessed in professional and academic circles first emerges in the classroom. The report proposes that there is a misguided preconception that girls under-perform their male counterparts in SET subjects at school level, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. It states that even those who claim not to hold any gender stereotypes still find themselves returning to the deeply ingrained gender cliché, ‘Maths is for boys and English is for girls.’ When placed in conjunction, these two factors inhibit what the AAUW term the female ‘growth mind set’. That is to say that as a result of the school-level gender stereotyping, girls can lose their ability to rationally assess personal academic capability and foresee future growth in a particular subject, in this case, the SET subjects, greatly limited.
As a result of their acceptance of their perceived weakness in the broadly termed ‘Sciences’, girls and women are far less likely to apply themselves in the classes in school, and therefore are less likely to pursue subjects such as Computer Sciences and Physics at A-Level, where females account for just over 40% of all SET exam entrants. This trend continues into Higher Education where, according to a 2010 report by UK-based gender equality group UKRC, women comprise just 33.4% of all SET undergraduate students, with the figure dropping to just over 15% for subjects such as Computer Sciences.
Speaking to Epigram, third year Mechanical Engineering student Daniel Ratcliffe says, ‘The gender imbalance in Engineering is unmissable, I would say that only 10% of the students in my year are female.’
From interviews conducted with students, it is apparent that the under-representation of women in certain faculties of the University of Bristol is a cause for comment, if not concern. One final year Chemistry student, Beth Johnson says, ‘I have only ever been taught by three women. Nearly all of my lecturers are male,’ an observation echoed by other students in subjects across the University’s SET faculties.
However, the lack of female faculty members is not unique to the University of Bristol, it is an issue facing all British universities. According to the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), women make up just 16% of the Vice-Chancellor positions available.
The lack of female academics, particularly in the SET subjects, is rooted in the fact that relatively few women who graduate with a degree in an SET subject choose to pursue it as a career.
According to UKRC, over 70% of women who graduate in SET are not actively involved in a related field following graduation. This means that there are significantly fewer women available to pursue an academic career; a field that several campaign groups argue is designed to better suit men than women.
Speaking to an audience of educational specialists in 2004, Lady Warwick, former Chief Executive of Universities UK, said that a lack of strong female role-models in positions of academic importance along with the ‘long hours culture,’ and the requirement to network both nationally and internationally in order to gain academic prominence meant that female academics often were forced to choose between their work and family lives.
Although this is not a problem unique to women in academia, there is evidence that there are fewer provisions made for women in Higher Education than in other professions. When asked whether she would consider pursuing a career in academia following the completion of her degree, Ms. Johnson said that she wouldn’t, but that she did hope ‘to do something related to chemistry’ – evidence, perhaps, of a future shift towards a greater gender balance in the SET sectors, in industry and, most importantly for universities across the country, in academia.