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Giving a voice to the leaky pipeline

It is no secret that women are under-represented at every level of the science and technology (S&T) system. Statistics clearly show that, much like a 'leaky pipeline', women steadily drop out all along the system. Nor is it difficult to identify the causes of the leaks. They ...

It is no secret that women are under-represented at every level of the science and technology (S&T) system. Statistics clearly show that, much like a 'leaky pipeline', women steadily drop out all along the system. Nor is it difficult to identify the causes of the leaks. They range from gender-based biases in hiring, evaluation, and promotion; to inadequate institutional support for women seeking to balance their work and personal lives; and a shortage of encouraging female mentors at the higher levels of academia. But what is hard to gauge is the extent to which these events impact upon the lives of women scientists and engineers. In order to give the issue a personal voice, Ruth Graham, an engineer from the Imperial College London, interviewed over 50 women at different career stages from all over Europe. Some of the interviews were used in a 2005 report by Women in Science and Technology (WIST), a group composed of 20 company representatives and five experts, which examined the situation of inequality, diversity and gender mainstreaming in a number of Europe's top companies. 'For me personally, I found them [the interviews] fascinating, there were events that I have been through myself, while there were other things I have yet to go through,' Dr Graham told CORDIS News. Although each woman's experience was unique, recurrent themes and issues across the biographical accounts became apparent. One finding that Dr Graham had expected was how encouragement and support from family and teachers can hugely increase the chances of young girls getting involved in scientific or engineering studies. This was highlighted by the story of one secondary-school girl, who initially was very interested in becoming an engineer thanks to support she received from her stepmother who was also an engineer. But the girl quickly lost interest in pursing this career following work experience, where instructors had what she described was a very 'masculine attitude', refusing to let her perform any tasks involving machinery. 'When I first met her, she was fired up to become an engineer. It was really inspiring hearing her talking about all the things she wanted to do,' Dr Graham explained. 'By the time I got back to her to do the interview, nine months later, she had changed her mind completely.' The girl in question has now opted for the more familiar career path of an English professor. 'To her engineering was taking a massive risk with her future whereas becoming an English professor wasn't,' said Dr Graham. 'She knew the sort of person she was going to be and the sort of people she was going to mix with. Whereas engineering was a big black hole to her, and she didn't know what her future was going to look like. She felt she could really be setting herself up for a disaster if she took that path.' Striking the right balance between work and home was also illustrated in the stories. Several of those working part-time spoke of the difficulty of arranging childcare around late meetings and feeling guilty about leaving work earlier to be with their children. They also highlighted the prejudices held by some managers towards women working part-time. However, other women were more fortunate. One professor gave an account of how she successfully managed to continue her career part-time after the birth of her first child. Initially she had thought that the best way was to strip out the research and concentrate on teaching. However, her head of department advised her to build on her research portfolio. He therefore took administration out of her job profile and halved her teaching load. This positive experience was to serve her for the rest of her career, which went from strength to strength. 'The stories help understand the factors and strategies that make women successful,' said Dr Graham, who found herself using this story to advise a friend engineer, who was coming back part-time after giving birth to her first baby. The stories show the importance of standing back and understanding the drivers for promotion and success early on. 'One of the drivers in academia is publishing and the money you draw in, so it's important to focus then on research. If it turns out that teaching is a driver, then focus on that,' said Dr Graham, who pointed out that most of the young female researchers and engineers she spoke with did not consider these drivers, or see the barriers. 'It isn't until they are 40 or 50 that they start to actually notice them,' she explained. It is also a question of being street wise. 'It is important to know that people tend to pass on jobs that aren't going to enhance their own careers, and understand that the jobs that people try to give to you, particularly if you are part time, are likely to be the ones that won't progress your career,' said Dr Graham. For one retired professor, however, these lessons have come too late. In her story, she provides accounts of discrimination as early on as her PhD. By the time she reached professorship, she found herself to be physically isolated from her colleagues. Unlike her male counterparts, she had to plead to be given her own office. During her lunch break, the professor would sit in her car or in a church nearby her laboratory. 'This was a heartbreaking story. The professor was obviously a brilliant woman, who had significant success outside her own country,' explained Dr Graham. In the 25 years of diary extracts that the professor sent Dr Graham, it was hard for her to know which extracts to use since the professor's career was full of examples of systematic bullying. Something which Dr Graham had not expected to hear from women was how their careers were sidelined due to involvement in women and science initiatives. 'There is a huge irony in that,' she said. One researcher interviewed was initially very excited about the prospect of passing on her good experiences to girls in secondary school. After her son was born, she decided to drop her research and devote her time to working on women initiatives. However, later on she realised that her career had not moved on in the same way as that of her male colleagues, which she felt was because of her participation in these initiatives. 'Getting involved in women in science schemes is incredibly important,' stressed Dr Graham. 'But you have to be careful about how you manage your time, knowing what percentage of your time can be flexible and not spending any more than that.' That extra time is when researchers undertake career-enhancing activities, or write extra papers, she added. In order to ensure that her own career does not plateau due to her involvement in women schemes, Dr Graham has decided to make sure that these activities are very much part of her main career path. In 2005, she became director of EnVision 2010, an initiative established by the Faculty of Engineering to ensure that Imperial College is at the forefront of innovation and excellence in international engineering education. One area on which the initiative is focussing is ensuring that the engineering curriculum is appealing to all students of both sexes. A survey of over 2,000 of the college's engineering students revealed that students, and above all female students, wanted to see more coursework related to sustainability and hands-on project work to help them really understand how to apply their knowledge in a real engineering context. 'A lot of changes we are making to engineering education are in those areas where women are particularly motivated. So actually by virtue of these changes, we are going to make our course more attractive to and stimulating for female students,' she said.