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‘Worryingly few’ women promoted to maths professorships

London Mathematical Society publishes good practice scheme for universities

The London Mathematical Society has issued a good practice scheme, following concerns that too few women are promoted to professor level in maths.

The launch of the scheme coincides with the publication of a report based on the first ever survey of working practices in mathematics departments to focus on women’s roles.

The report, ‘Advancing Women in Mathematics’, includes a set of best practice guidelines for departments, which aims to provide a benchmark and “provide inspiration”.

Speaking at the launch of the report at the Houses of Parliament on 27 February, LMS chairman Graeme Segal said that maths seemed to have the biggest problem of all the STEM subjects in retaining women. While 40 per cent of undergraduate students are female, just 6 per cent of professors are women.

The report identifies two key transition points. The first is from undergraduate level, where 40 per cent are women, to doctorate level, where only 19 per cent are women. The second is from the lecturer or senior lecturer level, where 29 per cent are women, to professor level, where the proportion of women drops to 6 per cent. The report noted that women may be more likely to decide against applying for promotions and added that there was sometimes a perception that women may have been invited to apply only to provide gender balance.

Also speaking at the launch, Margaret Wright, professor of computer science at New York University, who chaired the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s international review of mathematical sciences in 2010, said she had experienced such bias but claimed it had decreased over her career. She added that the US government has taken a ‘carrot’ approach to hiring female staff members, such as by offering extra funding to departments that hire women, rather than taking measures such as threatening to take funding away if female members of staff are not supported.

In order to identify best practice for women’s career development, the LMS surveyed UK mathematics departments, giving them 90 statements of practices, processes and arrangements. It received 30 responses, and reports that all departments had at least some good practice in place.

The survey found that few departments were proactive in identifying promotion candidates. Similarly, few took action to widen the candidate pool. It also identified a general concern about overloading female staff with requests to sit on multiple appointment panels, although some departments did ensure there was at least one woman and one man on each.

Issues of career breaks or flexible working hours had varied responses, with some feeling that there was an autonomy involved in mathematics and others saying that they had little experience of staff who had had interrupted careers.

The report noted that departments preparing to join the Athena SWAN scheme had more formal best practice guidelines in place. However, while most supported the development of best practice, they “had not, as yet, done much”.