International Women's Day

Why are women scientists shunning the top jobs?

Sophia Chan-Combrink says we must change the policies and cultural norms that ensure the under-representation of women scientists in key roles

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 4:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2016, 12:49pm

The Nobel Prize is seen by many as the pinnacle of fame and success. And yet only 17 women have been awarded the Nobel laurels in physics, chemistry and medicine (among them, Marie Curie was honoured twice), out of the 870 individuals who have received the Nobel Prize. If women are still almost invisible at the top of the sciences, how are they stacking up against men more generally in their careers?

To understand this better, last December, the British Council hosted a panel discussion on women in science with participants from academia in the UK and Hong Kong as well as the Equal Opportunities Commission. Many issues concerned the lack of female representation in senior research roles and the demands of childcare.

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The suggestion that the female recruitment base is simply not big enough for qualified candidates to be identified warrants probing. During the discussion, one panellist pointed out that women tend not to put themselves forward for senior positions because they perceive themselves as less qualified. This suggests a nurtured lack of confidence. However, studies demonstrate that both men and women share common attitudes and traits such as fear of success, suggesting that gender differences are not categorical.

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So is it structural barriers that lead to this pool of qualified women candidates being so small? Women tend to gravitate towards the type of work and workplaces that provide greater flexibility, especially if they have childcare commitments. This might suggest that female scientists with such commitments are shying away from intensive scientific work that may involve unpredictably long hours. The right questions to be pondered are: can universities and research companies encourage a healthy work-life integration; can governments implement family-friendly policies?

Women tend to gravitate towards the type of work and workplaces that provide greater flexibility, especially if they have childcare commitments

In this year’s policy address, the chief executive encouraged gender mainstreaming. This is achievable, but it will require changes in cultural mores regarding childrearing and caring responsibilities. The government could introduce equal paternity leave for fathers, but the public needs to re-engineer its view of what a “hands-on father” looks like.

So it is up to each of us to be more resolute in crafting the legacy we bequeath to future generations. We need to guarantee to our daughters that, should they aim high for senior research roles in science, and indeed any senior roles in any field, the societal infrastructure out there is ready for them to proceed and that their male partners have the freedom to be supportive.

Sophia Chan-Combrink is head of education and society at The British Council Hong Kong