Women for Science

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  • Greater inclusiveness

    Retention rates for women scientists and engineers can be improved by support from dedicated individuals. But to truly minimize attrition, the cultural environment of women’s workplaces must become more inclusive, making women feel valued and truly an integral part of the organization. Moreover, such policies and practices to maintain the supply chain must apply across time, beginning with girls’ S&T education and running well into professional women’s careers, including provisions for breaks from those careers and mechanisms for returning to them.

    Many programmes have been in place since the early 1980s, particularly in the United States, for addressing the special needs of girls when trying to attract them to science and engineering or preserve their interest. For example, the Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN) and a consortium of New England colleges have produced a handbook, Achieving Gender Equity in Science Classrooms (NECUSE, 1996). A similar ’classroom climate’ guide produced by Purdue University has now evolved into an extensive diversity ‘climate change’ programme (www.engineering.purdue.edu/Engr/AboutUs/Diversity/). Among these books’ numerous observations relevant to S&T educators is that girls prefer learning through hands-on experimentation and that they like working collaboratively in groups rather than in competitive atmospheres that emphasize individual achievement. Some schools, in recognition of the significant differences in girls’ and boys’ social development and approaches to science learning, have shown girls can do well by having girls-only courses (WISE, 2004).

     In many countries, women are entering science and engineering programmes at the college and graduate-school level in increasing numbers. The attrition rate of women students is substantial however especially in graduate school and in the transition to a career in science and technology. While many individuals, departments, and universities are trying to make the academic science and technology culture more inclusive, this turns out to be a formidable task that requires action from the top down.

     In recognition of that need, the United States National Science Foundation launched its Advance programme five years ago with the goal of increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers (www.nsf.gov/advance). To date, 19 of the country’s universities have received Institutional Transformation Grants under the Advance programme. One, a model programme at the University of Washington at Seattle, has established inclusiveness training, mentoring, and leadership training for all faculty in all of its S&T departments. The University has also developed toolkits for other institutions’ use in recruitment and hiring (www.engr.washington.edu/advance). Box 3.2 gives another example of the success of institutional climate change, and Box 3.3 shows examples of effective strategies.

    At the next stage, when graduating students endeavour to find suitable positions, their interviewers need to be trained (and occasionally monitored) to ensure that knee-jerk assumptions about students are not made on the basis of gender. Similarly with regard to mature students, many of whom are women who have returned to their studies after family-related breaks. Prospective employers need to take into account the wider set of real-world and enriching experiences that such students may have gained.

    Some industrial employers of science and technology graduates and technical staff— Ford, GlaxoSmithKline, IBM, Northrup Grumman, Pfizer, Schlumberger, and Unilever —have firmly committed themselves to these principles and in particular to encouraging more applications from women. The German Government presents a rating of companies relating to women-friendly practices, the Genderdax (www.genderdax.de). Highly rated companies are able to attract highly qualified women employees. Techniques that have helped these companies realize their goals include:

    • Training all interviewers comprehensively,
    • Sending women and men staff alike to recruitment fairs and open days,
    • Improving the representation of women in company literature,
    •  Producing literature aimed at women,
    • Holding events that are specifically women oriented.

    Such approaches reflect good management practice, which embodies fairness and transparency. Its application at all stages of recruitment, retention, and promotion is critical to ensuring equal opportunities in career progression, not only at companies but—adapted to their own special needs—at universities and virtually all other types of organizations.

    For women to progress within universities and similar research institutions, career-development programmes for junior staff members, including mentoring and training, must be put into place. Other activities that may assist the advancement of junior staff generally, and women in particular, include seminars on pertinent topics such as applying for grants, receiving promotions, and gaining tenure. Even such prosaic needs as childcare, if provided or subsidized by the university, can make a big difference in helping women balance career and family responsibilities. In the United Kingdom there is in fact a national child-care strategy, initiated by an industry group Employers for Childcare, to ensure the provision of affordable, accessible, and quality childcare. This is seen as benefiting not only women but men and employers as well. Box 3.4 shows an example of a voluntary evaluation of gender-sensitivity in physics departments in the United States.

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