Where are all the women?

16 Oct 2007 | News
New research blames a lack of role models and workforce practices for the low representatio of women among academic staff – particularly senior staff.

Cherchez la femme: 60 per cent of medical students are female, so why is it that 69 per cent of academic staff and 88 per cent of professors across 32 UK medical schools are men? New research blames a lack of role models and workforce practices.

A study of clinical academics across 32 UK medical schools found that only one in ten medical clinical professors are female – despite the fact that on average women make up 21 per cent of the workforce and 60 per cent of the students – and that over the past 20 years women have accounted for 40 per cent of the country’s medical graduates.

For the two years from 2004/ 2005, 207 men became professors while only six women received the same promotion, according to the study, “Women in the UK academic medicine workforce”, published in the Journal of Medical Education.

The policies aren’t working

One of the researchers, Anita Holdcroft of Imperial College London, says the findings imply workforce practices are holding back women in clinical academic careers and current policies are not effective in ensuring men and women are treated equally.

“Until now we had no UK gender data. This study has confirmed that women doctors are not achieving senior positions in academic medicine, despite adequate numbers of women medical students and academic trainees.”

The researchers compared data on the employment profiles of male and female clinical academics in all specialties. They identified 3,255 and 3,365 lecturers, senior lecturers, readers and professors in 2004 and 2005, respectively, of whom 21 per cent were women.

In 2004 there were 1,157 professors, of whom 11 per cent were women. In 2005 the picture improved slightly, with women holding 12 per cent of 1,364 professorial chairs.

The researchers reported a huge variation in the number of women professors in individual schools, with six employing no women professors at the start of the study, while in one school a third of professors were female.

This mirrors other studies of the female scientific workforce and underlines the fact that while attempts to attract more women to study science and medicine at undergraduate level are bearing fruit, women are not applying their skills in academic and clinical science.

For example, a survey by Eurostat, the EU’s statistics arm, published in August 2006 found that while just over half of Europe’s scientifically qualified work force is female, fewer than one in three of Europe’s professional scientists and technologists are women.

And in the US as well

And the issue is not limited to Europe. The 2005 data from US medical schools shows that five times more full professors are male than female. The US, like Europe, has made great strides in attracting women to study science, but here too, this is not translating through to women taking up academic jobs in science.

Forty years ago, women made up only 3 per cent of America’s scientific and technical workers, but by 2003 they accounted for nearly a fifth, according to the National Academy of Science.  Women have earned more than half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering since 2000.

But like their European counterparts, American women’s representation on university and college faculties fails to reflect these gains.  Among science and engineering PhDs, four times more men than women hold full-time faculty positions.

Other studies have found systematic pay gaps between men and women in the sciences and technical professions. A recent British study found female professors earn at least £4,000 less than their male counterparts – with discrimination a probable reason in 23 per cent of the cases.

The same is true in the US. Compared with men, women faculty members are generally paid less and promoted more slowly, receive fewer honours, and hold fewer leadership positions.  These discrepancies do not appear to be based on productivity, the significance of their work, or any other performance measures, says the National Academy of Science.

So, while women have been turned on to study science, they remain severely under represented as full time academics and researchers.

Good to get the data

Holdcroft believes the sheer fact that the medical school study happened is good news. “Just to be able to get that data is a first: it’s a major event and because you make that visible, people feel uncomfortable and have to change.  It is by getting the data that we can start to change.”

The findings of Holdcroft and her co authors are feeding into Women in Academic Medicine (WAM), a project to identify barriers and find solutions to improve female career progression in academia and the UK National Health Service. The project, which was set up in 2004, is due to publish its final report soon.

Holdcroft said WAM’s recommendations tackle bias at all levels, “They cover the government, they cover medical journals, they cover institutions, they cover heads of departments and they cover individuals, so it’s really to empower at all levels to be able to make these changes.”

Various other attempts are in hand to eliminate gender bias in universities and medical schools. For example, in the UK the Athena Scientific Women Academic Network (SWAN) has an awards system to encourage universities to clean up their recruitment processes and implement good practice.

Bristol University’s biochemistry department was recently given a silver award for gathering data, implementing an action plan and demonstrating progress towards gender equality.  “What we’ve done is put into effect the self-evaluation team and looked at what we’re already doing and that’s brought together the good practice that was already there,” said George Banting, the head of department. “But what it’s also done is highlight one or two areas where we can clearly improve, and the self-evaluation team will help us improve in those areas, we hope.”

As yet only 23 UK universities are signed up to the Athena charter, so clearly the scheme needs to extend its reach, as Julie Ashdown, the charter coordinator, admitted, “We are planning to increase both the number of members and also the number of members who apply and receive awards.  We are very much looking to raise the profile of it.”

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