“Astonishing” gender imbalance across uni labs

Joseph Winters and Megan Hughes 13 February 2014

Universities have come under fire from senior MPs for failing to act against the “astonishing” under-representation of women in science.

Andrew Miller, Chair of the Commons Science Select Committee (CSSC), which this week published a report on ‘Women in Scientific Careers’, has called on universities across the UK to “pull their socks up”.

Miller conceded that some universities were making progress in diminishing the gap between men and women, but did not specify which centres of academia he was referring to.

Just 17% of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) professors in the UK are women, and figures provided by individual college websites suggest that this imbalance persists at Cambridge, both at an undergraduate and research level.

According to figures on the University of Cambridge’s website, over three quarters of Engineering places accepted in 2012 went to men. In the same year, women made up only 13.1%, 15.4% and 36.9% of Computer Sciences, Mathematics and Natural Sciences places respectively.

Students have noted this tendency. Lucy, a first-year computer scientist at Peterhouse, remarked on the “gender imbalance” in the computer science half of her course. She told The Cambridge Student that “all the lecturers I have had and most of the demonstrators in practical classes seem to be male”.

This imbalance extends to the higher echelons of research. Particularly striking is Trinity College, which employs 29 male Mathematics fellows but no women in the role. Likewise, the college boasts 43 male Natural Sciences fellows, but only five women.

Both Clare and St John’s also only employ five female fellows in Natural Sciences, compared to 32 and 24 male fellows respectively.

Yet some colleges offer the opposite imbalance: Newnham College employs 23 female Natural Sciences fellows compared to only three men in the same role.

The Committee also found that women are disadvantaged in the way researchers’ achievements are assessed. According to the report, men tend to exhibit higher grant…incomes and publication output, which are highly valued when measuring success. Women, on the other hand, were found to be more involved in teaching and pastoral work, as well as outreach schemes, which are not taken into account when measuring success.

Included in the CSSC’s proposals are calls for the government to increase long-term post-doctoral opportunities. Miller argues that the unpredictability of research posts dissuades women from  continuing in research at at a time when many are trying to settle down.

Dame Athene Donald, a Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge and Gender Equality Champion for the university, described the report’s analysis of the status quo as “accurate”, but criticised the lack of “substantive ideas for how to change things”.

A 2009 winner of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science, Donald told The Cambridge Student that the University is working to counter the gender imbalance. She was optimistic that a “serious discussion of how we can broaden the criteria and metrics that currently apply [to measuring success]” will take place in the near future.

Dr Claire Barlow, Director of Undergraduate Education in the Engineering Department at Cambridge, told TCS, “This is an area of active concern and discussion in the Engineering Department”.

In September 2013 Cambridge University’s Engineering Department gained an Athena Swan Bronze Award, which recognises excellence in STEM employment in higher education.

Mateja Jamnik, Senior Lecturer in the Computer Laboratory of the University of Cambridge, and Cecilia Mascolo, Computer Science Fellow at Jesus College, jointly told TCS, “We think a lot more needs to be done to solicit women to come to STEM in academia (and in industry too), and then to stay there by promoting them, inviting them to give high profile talks, and be in important decision making roles, so that they can become real role models”.

Alice, a first-year Veterinary Medicine student at St John’s, noted that “There are far more female vet students compared to female fellows, but I personally don’t feel like that holds me back from being an academic or achieving what I want to do in the veterinary profession”.

It may be that wider societal problems are at work, as Matthew, a third year engineer at Peterhouse identifies. “The roles that society places on children from a young age contribute massively … Changing the way society sees certain skills as gendered and changing the perception of STEM in society would be a more sustainable way to address the gender imbalance."