Pioneering female presidents urge women to succeed in science

16 May 2014

Quotas for female participation in science and “token women” are a bad idea, but targets can be useful to measure progress in gender equality, IOP president Frances Saunders said at an event on 13 May to celebrate three major learned societies being led by female presidents.

Pioneering female presidents urge women to succeed in science

The “Question Time” styled event at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester was held to mark the novel situation that the IOP, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the Society of Biology all currently have female presidents.

Its purpose was also to highlight the opportunities for women as well as men to have successful careers in science, with local school and university students and researchers quizzing the three presidents on their experience of being women in science and their advice for both women and men who want to work in the sector.

The discussion was chaired by Baroness Verma, minister in the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and there was a balance of questions from male and female audience members to Prof. Lesley Yellowlees, president of the RSC, Prof. Dame Nancy Rothwell, president of the Society of Biology, and to Saunders.

One questioner asked whether there was a danger of women being given roles in science solely because they were women. All agreed that they would not want to be “token women” but to be appointed because they were the best person for the job.

Saunders said, however, that targets could help employers and university departments to examine their data and see whether there were gender equality issues to be addressed. Prof. Yellowlees said that the Athena Swan Charter scheme in higher education, which encourages and recognises good practice in advancing women’s careers in STEM, had done much to bring about culture change. Prof. Dame Rothwell said she could recall a time when she would be the only woman in a meeting, but now everyone was much more aware of the issues and wanted to achieve balance, both in gender and in ethnic diversity.

Prof. Yellowlees said she was the first female president in the RSC’s 172-year history and the first woman to be vice-principal of the University of Edinburgh. As such, she felt she had to use the opportunity to speak out about the under-representation of women in science and to try to move things forward. In schools, about half of those taking GCSE chemistry were female, she said, but at the professorship level only around 6-7% were women. Biology had a higher participation by women at the early stages, but even here there was a negative slope in the proportion of women employed as more senior levels were reached.

Saunders agreed and said that when she joined the motor industry after gaining her physics degree, the working environment for women was awful, but the world had moved on and things were better, though she was keen to see a lot more progress.

Prof. Rothwell said she was due to end her presidency of the Society of Biology on 15 May, but her successor was also a woman. In common with the other panel members she stressed the interdisciplinary nature of science, and said that she had completely changed the area of research in which she worked. People starting out on their career should be open-minded about their future field of research and “follow their heart”, grasping the opportunities that came along, she said. They should focus on what they were good at and believe in their abilities, she said, pointing to evidence that many women did not put themselves forward for a job unless they were sure that they could fulfil every single requirement of the role.

The panel also took questions on whether to seek male or female mentors, how to gain work experience and how to get students excited about science.

The three presidents appeared on BBC Breakfast Time on the day of the event, and issued a joint statement that set out the current unequal representation of women in STEM. They said: “We must consider that the lost opportunities here are not just for women, they are for science. There is a national shortage of skilled STEM workers each year – 40,000 at the most recent estimate – and we need talented women to fill these gaps.

“Government and the scientific community must work together to provide the support needed to allow women to reach the top in science. We need to send a message to all young people with ambition to become scientists: they must believe in themselves and push for progress – the rewards are many.”

Pioneering female presidents urge women to succeed in science


Pictured at MOSI before the event are (left to right): Prof. Yellowlees, Prof. Dame Rothwell, Baroness Verma and Frances Saunders.

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