Thursday, 8 May 2014

Women in scientific careers - the Government response

This is a guest post by Dr. Jo Barstow
You can continue the conversation on twitter (@drjovian)

The Science and Technology Select Committee published a report back in February, detailing the problems of retaining women in scientific careers. A disproportionate number of women who embark on a career in science choose to leave, and the Select Committee report provides a good summary of possible causes. The committee also came up with a series of sound recommendations for how this problem might be tackled, and yesterday the government published their response.

It’s clear that the findings of the report have been considered and taken seriously, but I struggled to find many instances of planned action on the government’s part beyond measures that are already in place. Without wishing to detract from those (extremely positive) measures, such as investment in Athena SWAN, there seemed to be a lack of willingness to take things further outside existing frameworks. This was especially noticeable in the response to Recommendation 16 from the select committee, which reads:
“Balancing the benefits of short term contracts with the needs of Post-Doctoral Researchers was examined by our predecessor committee in 2002. We are disappointed at the lack of progress in the last decade. The system of short term employment contracts for post-docs results in job insecurity and discontinuity of employment rights that is difficult for any researcher, but disproportionally deters women from continuing with science careers. It also has implications for workforce productivity.”
Disappointingly, whilst the government accepts that short term contracts are “challenging to individuals”, they claim that the burden of changing this rests entirely with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Because HEIs are autonomous employers, the government argues, they set the length of a contract and provided they conform to legislation the government’s hands are tied. This view misses out a crucial fact: many postdocs are government funded, either through a personal fellowship or through research council money won by their HEI, and the duration of that fellowship or grant is set by the research council.

HEIs are often unable to extend individual short-term contracts beyond the term of the funding, so in effect the length of a postdoc contract is dictated by the research council’s funding structure. This is something that the government needs to recognize, and RCUK has to take responsibility for.

My second concern is with the statistics provided in Appendix A, showing a steady decrease in the percentage of full-time research-only staff on fixed-term contracts between 2004 and 2013. One thing that really stands out is the focus on research-only staff. The majority of early career staff are research-only, whereas most senior staff also have teaching commitments; therefore, one would expect scientists to move out of the research-only category as part of their natural career progression. It is therefore difficult to tell whether this statistic really reflects an increase in permanent jobs for academic staff, or whether it instead reflects a shift away from combined research/teaching to more research-only tenured posts.

Despite problems with some of the government’s responses, I still think the committee report has had really positive outcomes for women in science, and it’s reassuring to see it being taken seriously at the highest levels in the UK. Whilst there are many changes that we still want to see, it’s worth acknowledging the encouraging signs that are already there: the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships and Daphne Jackson Trust fellowships, designed to help those who require flexible working or who are returning from a career break; the fact that “family constraints” are an acceptable reason to apply to a particular host institution for the STFC Ernest Rutherford fellowship; the large number of HEIs who have signed up to Athena SWAN and Project Juno. I hope the recommendations from the report will be attended to carefully over the next few years.

- Dr. Jo Barstow

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