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Women in science: Better in Britain?

British Information Services

In the UK, the government has invested in a number of measures designed to recruit more women in science. This is about promoting good practice among employers as well as supporting women in their careers. The UK is working to "mainstream" gender equality into the academic culture, as well as ensuring equal treatment for women in the workplace.

Across the pond we were troubled by comments made by Harvard President Summers. The problem with those remarks suggests an innate inability on the part of girls to do as well as boys in science or math. This can lead to girls feeling discouraged. Summer's view that socialization has no impact, implies that no amount of effort to create a level playing field for men and women will help women progress to senior positions in science. This is also especially discouraging for all of us who are working to put an end to discrimination and trying to improve the numbers of women in science. Summers' remarks were clearly uniformed and based on assumptions of gender differences. Achievements in science are not biologically based. This lack of data has been corroborated by other experts in the field and needs to be borne in mind when debating these issues, when evidence, rather than opinion, is what matters.

The results of a recent survey of over 6,500 scientists across the UK will be announced at this week's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Conference. These results suggest a clear link between success and encouragement. What we need to do is ensure that women can access the same level of support as their male colleagues.

In 1972, Cambridge University had around 17 percent women undergraduates, although only about two percent were in physical sciences and engineering and no female academic staff in physics, chemistry, mathematics, material science or engineering. Today things look much better, half the undergraduate population is female, between 10 and 25 percent in physical sciences and engineering, and between five and 25 percent of the academic staff are women in those departments.

The UK is working hard to improve these numbers for the academic community as a whole through the Athena Project. This UK initiative is designed to advance and promote the careers of women in science, engineering and technology in higher education and research and to achieve a significant increase in the number of women recruited for top science positions. This is done through encouraging, recognizing and embedding good practices at institutions in the public and private sector across the UK.

While there have been many initiatives aimed at encouraging more women into scientific careers it is clear from European research that simple measures such as transparent recruitment and promotion procedures are very important. Scientific cultures can be exclusionary: it is important to open them up to women. Integrating gender equality into work cultures is essential if women are to be able to fulfil their potential.


What: Women in Science Workshop: A UK Perspective
Where: American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Exhibit Hall
When: Friday, 12:00 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.
Program: Presentations on Women in Science by Nancy Lane from Cambridge and Chair of Athena Committee; Caroline Fox from the Royal Society and Program Manager for Athena, Teresa Rees from Cardiff University and expert on UK science in the EU Context, Carol Robinson from Cambridge and winner of the Rosalind Franklin Award for Chemistry, and Julia King, Principal of Engineering Faculty at Imperial College and previous Head of Materials at Rolls-Royce Aerospace Group. Presentations to be followed by open discussion.

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