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Women in Science

In the UK, women represent only 21% of physics undergraduates and 9.1% of engineering undergraduates (McWhinnie 2012; Equality Challenge Unit 2014). Even in subjects such as chemistry and biological sciences, where women predominate at undergraduate level, the proportion of women in research and academic posts progressively diminishes.

During the 2012/13 academic year the majority of UK professors, across all academic disciplines, were men (78.3%). This gender difference was most notable among full-time professors working in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) subject areas, where 82.8% were men [Equality Challenge Unit, 2014]. In medicine women are under-represented as academics and in their aspirations to hold an academic post [Lambert, Smith & Goldacre, 2015].

Past experiences

Some of the women we interviewed, who were mainly senior academics, recalled discrimination they had faced earlier in their careers.

Portrait of Kay Davies© Women in ScienceYears ago when Kay applied for a job she was initially told that since her husband had a lectureship at the University she couldn’t necessarily expect to have a job too.


Portrait of Elspeth GarmanElspeth, who did a doctorate (DPhil) in nuclear physics, found it was tough working in a ‘man’s world’. Later she moved to molecular biophysics, where she worked for a highly respected female head of department.


Until the 1970s all Oxford colleges were single sex, the majority restricting their undergraduate population to men, and when Elspeth became the maths tutor for physics students at an all-male college she faced ‘huge discrimination’ and ‘very severe ostracism’. Other women we interviewed recalled discrimination on grounds of gender too. One remembered an occasion in her lab when a colleague was asked to resign because she was pregnant. Another woman recalled an incident when the male head of her laboratory told a colleague that she was not serious about her career in science because she had children. Helen B studied mathematics at Cambridge 30 years ago and by the third year she was often the only woman in the lecture theatre.

Current experiences

Today, in 2018, although most senior academics are still male, the situation for women seems to be improving. Indeed, some of the women we interviewed said that they had never been aware of any discrimination due to gender. some women thought the culture was changing as an outcome of the Athena Swan initiative (see Athena Swan).

Portrait of Bryony GrahamBryony, who is doing postdoctoral research, thinks she has had the same opportunities as her male colleagues.


Portrait of Dr Christine Kiire© Women in ScienceChristine, reflecting on her doctorate and other research projects, says that she has not experienced any discrimination due to gender.


Portrait of Irene Tracey© Women in ScienceIrene has never felt gender discrimination at Oxford herself, but she has seen women at other national and international centres experience difficulties due to gender.


Portrait of Jane Langdale© Women in ScienceJane says that she has never felt discriminated against. She has not applied for some jobs because they are not things she has wanted to do.


When Helen M was at school her maths teacher thought she should be a housewife and didn’t want to teach her maths, but since her school days she hasn’t felt that being a woman has been a disadvantage.

Portrait of Helen McShane© Women in ScienceDuring Helen’s career she hasn’t seen many senior women juggling family and work role models, but she hasn’t felt that being a female has hindered her career.


Some of the women described being only woman in the room still at some meetings. Daniela said this still surprises her and she thinks ' My goodness, I've been doing this for a long time'. Kristina thinks it's important to keep men as allies and they have to be part of the solution. She always raised gender inequality with her students as it's so important to make people aware of it.

Click for Daniela's interviewDaniela thinks that people tend to not notice the contributions women make to science


Eleanor S describes 'an almost 50-50 split' between women and men in her lab. She said, 'I think engineers are a bit funny that we're so interested in engineering, we don't really notice if our colleagues are men or women'.

Several women talked about self-confidence and how women academics may feel less confident in seeking promotion. Marta things that women tend to think they aren't good enough. She said 'you have to work harder to get to the same opportunities'. Kylie said her biggest challenge had been the lack of confidence in herself and it's something she continually struggles with.

Click for Priyanka's interviewPriyanka talks about how boys are encouraged ‘to give it a go’ and the additional pressure of being a female minority.


Caring responsibilities

Although caring responsibilities can impact on career progression, some women said that they wanted to take main responsibility for their children, even if it meant that their training took longer, or their career started more slowly. Others had partners who shared child care, or had found good solutions to child care, but recognised that time spent on child care is often a barrier to other women’s success. Lois, who worked as a career coach, explained why caring responsibilities make life hard for some women, especially for women in academic medicine (For more see ‘Child care’).

Portrait of Lois Brand© Women in ScienceLois thinks that women in academic medicine have to manage too many roles and that their lives can be very stressful and difficult.


Portrait of Prof. Eleanor Barnes© Women in ScienceEleanor said that women are still doing most of the child care. She suggests that many men are not aware that the women working around them have to manage this gender inequality.


Among the women we talked to Sally was the only woman who had taken a long career break to care for her children (For more see ‘Child care’ and ‘When is the best time to have children?’). She reflected on how having children may affect a woman’s career at the crucial point after their postdoc. Fran, who only took six months maternity leave and who had not experienced overt discrimination herself, also explained why women who stop work for a while are disadvantaged.

Portrait of Sally CowleySally thinks that having children just at the time a woman is expected to set up her own lab is one of the biggest barriers to women’s success in science.


Portrait of Fran Platt© Women in ScienceFran believes that women who have a career break are disadvantaged because they are not up to date on the literature and techniques have moved on. She thinks that people who have children need support.


Unconscious bias

Several women, including professors, said that in the University there is still a lack of transparency about appointments, progression and how people are selected for committees. Some suggested that there is still an ‘old boys’ network’ and that major decisions are still made in the corridor or in the pub, and that there is unconscious bias which makes it hard for women to succeed. Julia said that not in any conscious way there is 'a feeling that the best theoretical physicist is like slightly edgy young men because many of them are and so one assumes that women are less good'. She is concerned about he small number of women applying to do theoretical physics. Other women also said that they had started to reflect more about unconscious bias: their own and others.

Portrait of Leanne Hodson© Women in ScienceLeanne thinks that men are more likely than women to get ‘sponsored’ and men are more likely than women to be taken seriously.


Portrait of Irene Tracey© Women in ScienceIrene suggests that there is often unconscious bias which the Athena SWAN agenda has helped bring to light.


Portrait of Lucy Dorrell© Women in ScienceLucy has heard of instances of situations where other women have been asked whether or not they intend to have children. Such questioning is against the law.


Portrait of Blanca Rodriguez© Women in ScienceBlanca believes that men in her department often make important decisions outside the workplace and that she is excluded because she is a woman.


Discrimination, sexism and sexual stereotyping

Although culture in the work place and at home appears to be slowly changing, more change is needed if women are to have equal opportunities (For more see Athena SWAN’). Alison N said she has found the best way to deal with discrimination is to talk with various people who could give you advice on how to manage it. A few women pointed out the men were more likely to get the statutory positions whereas women were awarded contracts called RS4s which had different pay and status. The statutory positions also came with extra stipends and recognition of distinction awards. One woman was negotiating a large research contract with a company and was asked by the company manager how she was going to mange it given she was going to have a baby.

Alison W commented that if her male colleagues work late or attend a conference they get sympathy from their families, but when her female colleagues work late their family members make them feel that they are either selfish or that they are ‘betraying’ the family. Tamsin hasn't experienced any discrimination but says sometimes 'there is a language that is used around the place that I don't find very appealing. That I don't find I can engage with'. Priyanka similarly reflected on comments which made her feel uncomfortable. She said a lot of women refer to this as 'death by a thousand cuts'. Several women reflected on how they deal with 'micro aggressions' and deciding when to act on them; which battles to fight. Hazel commented 'Again it's making that judgement call quite often in the instant, about is this the time it will be helpful or not?'

Portrait of Jane Moore© Women in ScienceJane believes that sexism is deeply ingrained in our way of thinking, and that women still face of a lot of barriers which make it hard for them to progress with their careers.

Click for Charlotte's interviewCharlotte found being at an all girls school advantageous in some ways but there was an ‘underlying current of don’t try to be better than the boys’.


Sexual stereotyping still goes on too. For example, Bryony said that other people did not expect her to be a scientist because she is tall and blond and Charlotte was regularly asked to pour the tea and coffee at meetings when she was younger. Others experienced stereotyping because of the type of work they did.

Portrait of Prof. Alison Halliday© Women in ScienceAlison recalls that her patients have sometimes assumed that she is a secretary or a nurse instead of a Professor of Vascular Surgery.


One woman thought that being a young woman worked to her advantage. She said that, ‘Sometimes situations with certain people are easier to smooth over if you’re a young woman than they would be otherwise, and in that sense I suppose there’s a certain element of stereotyping.’ Others also thought they had benefitted from positive stereotyping at points in their career. As one women said, 'I think it's very much evened out'. Others noted that stereotyping had a negative effect.

Portrait of Molly CrockettMolly believes that there is a pervasive stereotype that men are better than women at ‘quantitative endeavours’, which may disadvantage women.


Portrait of Kay Davies© Women in ScienceKay was told that if she tied her hair back she would be taken more seriously. She didn’t follow this advice but sometimes wore glasses because that seemed to make a difference.


Marian said that because she is a successful senior academic other people sometimes assume she doesn’t have children. Lois, a hospital consultant, thinks that male colleagues sometimes treat her in a patronising manner, and that they show her less respect than they would to a male colleague. Another woman said that when she goes to a conference other delegates always assume that her male colleagues are leading the work, which is annoying. Helen B thinks that mathematicians tend to see 'your mathematical brain' rather than your gender.

Click for Priyanka's interviewPriyanka describes her changing strategies of working in a male dominated environment.


There were differences in the way in which women perceived inequality at a senior level. Some felt that people are treated more equally at a senior level but getting to that level is the problem. Others felt there was inequality and this could be easily addressed by an audit of what people are paid and their working conditions. Daniela stressed that gender is not the only issue and it's important to think about other diversities such as social class.


Skills and Demand in Industry 2015, IET.


Equality Challenge Unit (2014) Equality in higher education: statistical report 2014. London

Lambet T, Smith F, Goldacre M. (2015) Doctors currently in jobs with academic content and their future intentions to pursue clinical academic careers: questionnaire surveys. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open 6 (2) 1-8.

McWhinnie S. (2012) Physics students in UK Higher Education Institutions. Institute of Physics

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