11 Feb 2014

OU gives evidence to women in scientific careers report

Clem Herman Senior Lecturer in Computing and Communications

Clem Herman Senior Lecturer in Computing and Communications

The House of Commons Select Committee’s report Women in Scientific Careers has recognised the dearth of women in professorial roles at higher educational institutions. The recommendations in the report focus on issues such as the length of research contracts, academic career structure and the cultural change needed in institutions.

Clem Herman, Senior Lecturer in Computing and Communications, and the Open University’s lead for Athena SWAN, gave evidence at the Select Committee and is quoted extensively in the report. She said, “Five years ago we saw government investment in getting women into scientific careers at its peak. Since then it has been massively reduced due to funding cuts. However the solution is not just about money - but we need to look at changing the culture of academic institutions.”

The disconnect between women their long term career paths is not unique to STEM. There has been a considerable recalibration in the private sector in recent years with a commitment to recruit more women to Boardroom positions. The report argues that a similar stance must be taken for women in scientific careers, and that women need to feel confident in following non-linear career paths. However, delving deeper into the report, it is clear that there is a far greater and more complex issue relating not only to universities but the funding of research posts. Short term research grants compound the issue of the lack of women in research roles, and one of the recommendations in the report is to lengthen the tenure period from two to five years. It said: “there is no simple solution to this and a wider effort is needed not just from universities but also from funding organisations and recruiters. There is an urgent need for all parties to become more open and flexible to help those who have taken a career break back in to work.”

Clem has researched the issue of women in STEM and found that women returning from a career break can find it difficult to regain research momentum and credibility, but is encouraged that there is change happening. The Research Excellence Framework (REF), the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, is now recognising that the volume of work submitted for those returning after a career break can often be less that those who have worked continuously, and this is now being taken into consideration.

A review of the academic career structure needs to be addressed at the highest level before issues further down the career ladder can be resolved, according to the Select Committee report. Two initiatives mentioned in the report as examples of good practice, both of which the Open University is already involved in, are the Athena Swan Charter and the Daphne Jackson new fellowships awarded .

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