End the macho culture that turns women off science

Athene Donald
This article is more than 8 years old
We are wasting an enormous pool of talent by not encouraging women to enter and stay in this discipline
Alice Roberts
Alice Roberts: a role model for women who want to take up science
Alice Roberts: a role model for women who want to take up science
Sat 16 Jun 2012 19.09 EDT

Professor Lesley Yellowlees, president-elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), calls it – in the Observer news pages – the "terrific waste" of women in our scientific workforce. Among other things, she'll be thinking of the number of girls who choose physics A-level – a mere 22% of candidates – and the numbers fall off steadily thereafter, to around 7% of professors.

Along the way, the choices women make may lead them in different directions from male colleagues.

Have they chosen to marry a slightly older man and put his career first? Have they opted to stay at home with the baby who has spent months kicking at their conscience as well as at their belly? Have they decided they have no desire to spend their lives in a frantic competition with aggressive men with one-track minds? Women frequently feel unable to make the choices they really want, but surely society can make better use of their talents, first by encouraging them and then facilitating their progression.

So what can and should be done? Undoubtedly, additional government resources would be helpful, but organisations can start by confronting their own cultures, which generally in universities is not good. In an RSC report, women told how they found their PhD experiences in chemistry an "ordeal filled with frustration, pressure and stress". Women who feel like that won't stick around. Organisations need to reflect on what is going on, check on supervisory practice and mentoring and make sure their policies are appropriately family-friendly. Such actions will benefit men as well as women, but typically women will benefit more.

Athena SWAN awards, which recognise good employment practice for women working in science among other fields, act as benchmarks. These are successfully changing attitudes and culture in those departments that engage and win them. The funders of research recognise this, too. Last summer, Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, said that the Department of Health would not expect to shortlist for future funding any NHS/university partnership where the academic partner had not achieved (at least) a silver award in this scheme, after seeing some "appalling" presentations of gender issues.

Other funders are talking of following suit. This focuses the mind and this stick should help to improve the climate for women throughout the university sector. My university, Cambridge, was already well on the case, including appointing me as gender equality champion in 2010 to push things forward.

Other aspects matter as well. More female scientists are now seen on our TV screens; women such as Professor Alice Roberts and Dr Helen Czerski are bringing science alive while also acting as role models for girls. Prizes such as the For Women in Science fellowships, run by L'Oréal and Unesco (for which I chair the jury), can also bring into the limelight the incredible talent that is out there.

We cannot afford, in a rather literal sense, to waste the talent of half the population by permitting the macho culture and negative subliminal messages permeating our society to deter so many smart young girls from starting science careers. Or indeed to spit them out prematurely without allowing them to fulfil their potential.

Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University

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