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Top-level women on the rise

The representation of women in top-level positions at the research councils is improving, Research Councils UK has said.

Nevertheless, men continue to have a far greater chance of being offered a job at all levels.

The assessment is given in an RCUK submission to the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s review of the barriers that exist for women in science, technology, engineering and maths careers.

RCUK says the main barrier it faces in the recruitment, retention and progression of women in science is the low number who apply for its vacancies.

“Even allowing for the lower proportion of women qualifying in the disciplines from which we mainly recruit (engineering and the physical sciences) STFC is not attracting its share of female graduate and post graduate applicants, and this has been the case over a number of years,” it notes.

While a greater percentage of women are called to interview, they are less likely than men to be offered a job. In 2009, men were twice as likely to receive a job offer than women.

However, it adds that resignation rates, at least at the STFC, are low, and that RCUK data shows that women fare as well as men in promotions.

Six women hold director-level jobs in the councils, compared with none in 2006. RCUK highlights “breaking down macho, long-hours cultures which prevent many women from participating effectively at senior levels” as a potential approach to increasing representation at top levels.

While RCUK says that mandatory quotas for women on boards would be unpopular in the short term, it suggests that the policy would bring about the right changes in the longer term “by creating the critical mass needed to bring about behaviour change”.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh launched its inquiry into women in STEM at the end of last year and called for evidence at the beginning of the summer. It will present its preliminary findings in October and plans to produce a final report by the end of the year.

The RCUK submission highlights the fact that two international reviews for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council have warned about a lack of female representation in maths and chemistry.

“We are concerned therefore that despite explicit equality policies most universities have not managed to make sufficient progress relative to international expectations,” the submission reads. “This is a source of concern to EPSRC and we will continue to raise the issue in our discussions with key universities.”

Most of the other councils, as employers of researchers, have a range of mechanisms in place to support women in science. The Medical Research Council in particular is singled out for its “key role in lifting barriers to women in science”.

The STFC also received praise in a survey for its generous maternity leave policies.