#Womeninscience: The under-representation of women in science

#Womeninscience: The under-representation of women in science

Dr. Stacey A. Bedwell

Lecturer in Psychology, Birmingham City University

Approximately two years ago I published an article covering the topic of women in neuroscience, asking if we can have it all. My conclusion was that yes, we can, but it’s extremely difficult and depends a lot on where you work and the field you work in. Essentially, it’s easier for male scientists to progress to the top of the career ladder and have a family they can spend quality time with. The response was somewhat polar, readers who contacted me seemed to either wholeheartedly agree with me or dismiss it as a feminist rant. Here I am again, two years later, asking a similar question. Are women under-represented in science? And if we are, why? Has anything changed in the past two years?

To really understand what is happening with the representation of female scientists, we need to break down science into smaller fields. Science is far too broad to get a clear picture. I work in a psychology department at a post-1992 UK university, this is a heavily female dominated environment. One of my best friends, who I did my PhD with, works in mathematics in a Russell group university, she finds herself surrounded by male colleagues. Using both of us as examples, let’s look a little deeper. My current line manager is male, my head of department is female, head of school is male and the dean is male. For my friend in mathematics at the Russell group university, her manager is male, as is her head of school and dean. So, we see some female representation here, but you can start to notice that as we move up the hierarchy all the top positions start to become male dominated.

When I wrote the article two years ago I did some research into the male and female representation in the top positions in psychology and neuroscience departments around the UK. At the time, within my own department only 29% of staff were female. The situation was similar across UK universities, with the representation of women consistently much lower than 50% at senior levels. Although the figures may have improved in the past 2 years, there is certainly not an equal gender split when looking at senior scientific positions. We still find ourselves asking why this is the case.

A common assumption when speaking to colleagues is that female scientists are forced to decide between career progression and having a family. An important period of progression, especially in academia, tends to fall around the time people are in their early to mid-thirties. This also happens to be the time that many people are thinking about having babies, getting married and spending time with their families. Thinking about my own department and others I know, the few female scientists I know who are in positions of authority are in their mid-thirties. They have done great to get to where they are, but I wonder if they would be there had they taken time off in their early thirties to have children. Research evidence outlines that female scientists who have chosen to have children felt that the decision had affected their career progression, more so than it did for their male counterparts (Brody, 2004). Having children is shown to significantly decrease the average number of hours worked by mothers, whilst increasing the average number of hours worked by fathers (Leslie, 2007). Is this a reflection of out of date attitudes towards provision and childcare, that are not compatible with career progression for female scientists?

A male colleague of mine recently had a baby. He was back at work after two weeks of annual leave. He did not take paternity leave because the university does not provide any paternity pay for fathers, only statuary paternity pay, so he took the time as annual leave. Had he been the mother of the baby, he would have received full pay for six months. Because of this situation, it is his partner who is staying home with the new baby for a prolonged period, while he returned to work. I have no doubt that situations like this are contributing to female scientists having to make the choice to stay at home for longer when they have a new baby, giving an unfair advantage to their male counterparts progressing in the workplace.

There are many potential reasons contributing to the under representation of women in science. I haven’t even touched on the way in which we encourage girls and boys into different career paths – incidentally this is an issue I have seen vast improvements on in recent months. The message is clear though, women are still under represented across the sciences, and it is not necessarily out of choice.


Brody, E.M. (2004). Women in the middle: Their parent care years. New York: Springer.

Leslie, D.W. (2007). The reshaping of America’s academic workforce. Research Dialogue. (87). New York.

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