There is a fascinating shift in how scientific research is being undertaken at the moment, both in the corporate and academic worlds. Moves to open up the process have brought insights from traditionally unusual sources. One area that will hopefully be helped by the new openess of science is redressing the gender balance of research.
A study conducted by the University of Sheffield found that men are still far more likely to have research published than their female peers. The researchers looked at the list of speakers at a host of conferences on evolutionary biology throughout Europe. They found that of the six events, male speakers significantly outnumbered women, and the proportion was not accounted for by the differing numbers of people of each gender practising in the field.
Hannah Dugdale from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, explains that “it’s important that we understand why this is happening and what we can do to address it—high quality science by women has low exposure at international level and this is constraining evolutionary biology from reaching its full potential.
“We’re currently investigating the reasons behind this lower acceptance rate—it could relate to childcare requirements, lower perception of scientific ability, being uncomfortable with self-promotion—there are many potential contributing factors.”
Julia Schroeder, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany says: “The most demanding phase of a career in biology, when it is important to communicate one’s findings, and to build networks with other scientists, coincides with the age at which women’s fertility starts to decline, meaning it is their last chance to have a family unlike men.
“Thus, women scientists of this career phase may be pregnant, or have children. Stay-at-home-dads are rare, therefore, these women are less flexible about travelling for work, and may be more likely to decline invitations to speak. We have yet to investigate whether this is indeed the cause, but it is a likely factor that starts the downward spiral: lower exposure and fewer networking opportunities are costly to the career. Fewer women in top positions mean fewer female role models for students who aspire to be scientists.”
“Taking action to foster a culture that supports equality and diversity within research and that encourages better representation and support for women at all stages of their career is extremely important,” says Kirsty Grainger, head of Skills and Careers at the Natural Environment Research Council.
“We need to ensure that we attract and retain the brightest and best researchers, regardless of their background, into the UK research base. Understanding and addressing disincentives and indirect obstacles to recruitment, retention, and progression in research careers is an essential part of this.”