Where Have All the Women Gone?

Only a third of women graduates in science, engineering, and technology (SET) who take a career break return to a job that makes use of their university education and training. That’s the shocking finding of a report, ” Maximising Returns to Science, Engineering and Technology Careers,” published by the Department of Trade and Industry ( DTI) last month. Launching the report, Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt described the situation as “a waste of women’s talents.” At the same time she announced a number of new proposals to encourage women scientists and engineers to return to their careers.

According to “Maximising Returns,” about 50,000 women SET graduates are not working at any one time. Coupled with a 7% decrease in the proportion of SET graduates among the graduate workforce between 1992 and 2000, this hole leaves SET employers with a skills shortage.

The report also estimates that four in 10 SET women have been out of work for at least 5 years. Although one obvious longer term mechanism for addressing this imbalance is to find ways to keep female staff members from leaving, the short-term solution is to attract back those women who have already left.

So what stops them from returning to work? Some of the problems are specific to science: Women with young children stay home longer if they have a SET background. Although the shortage of part-time work in SET is one problem, the report found that a main cause is a lack of confidence. Women leavers quickly begin to feel out of touch with technical issues, feel unable to do a specific job, and are wary of new environments.

The report’s authors found only four existing schemes (see box) in the United Kingdom designed to help returners, and they are mainly aimed at academics. Hewitt made her new proposals public at the 10th anniversary celebration of one of these schemes, the Daphne Jackson Trust. It provides 2-year, part-time fellowships to U.K. residents who have taken a career break of at least 3 years from a science or engineering career.

Asking for advice or using contacts is important in getting the fellowship application together. Alice Miller gained her Ph.D. in number theory in 1988 and worked as a tutor at the University of Western Australia until she had her first child in 1991. She then spent 7 years in part-time jobs–“I felt it was very important to keep my hand in with mathematics,” she explains. In 1998 she felt ready to kick-start her career, and she approached the Department of Computing Science at Glasgow University. They took her in and helped her prepare her fellowship application. Miller’s research involves modelling telephone systems and evaluating software that is intended to describe them. Her supervisor, Professor Muffy Calder, explains that the initial cost of such fellowships is large because it takes time before fellows get up to speed and produce results. “It requires a huge leap of faith for both the fellow and the supervisor,” says Calder.

Using scheme managers, as recommended by the DTI report, may ease some of the burden on returners. These managers would be responsible for building portfolios of likely employers and matching returners with them. But even with the current problems, Daphne Jackson Trust fellows are benefiting from the experience. Some, like Christian, find the flexibility an advantage. “My children are still quite small, and I wouldn’t want to work full-time,” she explains.

The fellowships also help build confidence. “It was a major boost to morale when I especially needed it,” says Althea Wilkinson. She took up a temporary lectureship at the same time she had her daughter but found that juggling lecturing, child care, and research was just too much. Research lost. When she felt her children were old enough and she was ready to return to research, she discovered that her lectureship was not being renewed. She fought for a final teaching year and then changed her research direction to get into a strong research group, in order to boost her fellowship application. She now works in space project management, a job that became available, Wilkinson says, because “thanks to the Daphne Jackson Trust I was in the right place at the right time.”

One of the trust’s greatest success stories must be Margaret Rayman. A chemist by training, she had a career break of 15 years and thought that returning to research would be impossible. However, she discovered the fellowships, finished hers in 1996, and is now a recognised world expert on selenium. Her fellowship research examined the role of trace elements such as selenium in preeclampsia, a condition that is responsible for one in 10 babies being delivered early. She is now involved in organising the U.K. pilot trial for PRECISE–Prevention of Cancer by Intervention with Selenium. Rayman has several research grants to her name, and 4 years ago she set up a successful part-time M.Sc. course in nutritional medicine at the University of Surrey. She has also published papers in high-impact journals, presented lectures, and appears regularly on television and radio.

But the 10 fellowships a year that the trust supports will not have much impact on the large numbers of women that the government is targeting. Along with the DTI report, Hewitt unveiled several measures aimed at raising the profile of women in SET. Baroness Susan Greenfield has been appointed to develop a strategy to improve women’s involvement in the sciences, to be delivered this summer. Hewitt also announced the launch of the Franklin Medal in recognition of Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA. This annual competition, open to men and women, will be run by the Royal Society and will award £30,000 to a researcher for scientific innovation.

Despite welcome initiatives like these, increased funding for the Women in Science and Engineering campaign, and financing for a pilot mentoring scheme, the question remains: Will they be enough to tempt women back?

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