Wanted: Women scientists
It is a century since Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes, one for physics and the other for chemistry. How can more women be encouraged to work in science? A timely question in view of International Women's Day on 8 March.
Marie Curie was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. Thanks to her discovery of radium, the Polish-French scientist paved the way for nuclear physics and cancer therapy. In 1903, as part of a trio she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and was the first woman in Europe to receive a doctorate, both in physics. Eight years later, Ms Curie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. She was also decorated with several other awards, including in the US. Now, a century later, it seems that Marie Curie’s achievements were exceptional indeed, not least from a gender point of view.
Not that women are absent from science; they are well-represented in higher education and research, for instance. But female professional scientists are thinner on the ground, representing 25-35% of the research workforce. Why is this, particularly as there has been an increase in women graduates of science and engineering in recent years?
OECD science ministers have an interest in closing the gap between women’s growing participation in higher education and research and their share in research jobs. Identifying ways of attracting, recruiting and retaining women in scientific careers is becoming important because of growing demand for science and technology professionals, an ageing scientific workforce and a declining interest in the subject among youth.
OECD analyst Ester Basri says “women have made significant progress in science, in both the workforce and in education. But more needs to be done, for instance by promoting alternative career paths or entrepreneurship”.
One reason cited for the low number of women in top science positions is the difficulties women have reconciling profession and child rearing, including the demands for mobility early in research careers. Available data confirm that women scientists and engineers are less successful than their male counterparts in travelling along the academic career path. Just over one-third of US university faculty are women but this figure is much lower in EU countries and in Australia, as well as Korea (14.5%). Women also make up less than 20% of senior academic staff in the majority of EU countries. One effect of this is a scarcity of female role models among senior researchers and faculty to inspire other women to follow suit.
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The story is not all bad. The population of female researchers has increased. In the EU, the number of men in science and engineering increased by 4.9% from 1998 to 2002, while the number of women rose 4.2%. Although women account for only 30% of science and engineering graduates in OECD countries, this is an average figure. True, less than 30% of graduates in computing and 40% of graduates in the physical sciences are women, but look again, and more than 60% of life science graduates in many OECD countries are women. In other words, women tend to concentrate on fields such as biology, health, agriculture and pharmaceuticals, with low representation in physics, computing and engineering.
One problem is that most women researchers in OECD countries work in the public sector, and men find work in industry. Only 17.5% of women researchers in the EU and 6% of those in Japan work in the business sector, yet nearly two-thirds of women researchers in the US work in industry or business.
Government efforts plus new technologies and a growing push for diversity within industry are helping to close this gender gap. Some countries have implemented measures to increase the number of women graduates, and other countries have focused on keeping women in science after graduation.
“Childcare is often a problem. Even in countries where governments provide this benefit, women want more independence and authority in the lab”, says Ms Basri.
Most OECD countries are addressing the issue of women's participation in science to varying degrees. However, warns the OECD expert, “a genderbased approach is not the only solution. After all, day care also affects young fathers. We need a consistent approach. We need to understand why women stay away from science and research in general”. AB
For more on OECD work on women in science, contact Ester.Basri@oecd.org
- OECD (2006), Women in Scientific Careers: Unleashing the Potential, Paris.
- Rhea Wessel (2005), “Breaking through the lab-glass ceiling”, Science/Business, 27 October 2005.
- “Women in Science, Engineering and Technology: Strategies for a Global Workforce”, OECD meeting held in September 2006, see www.oecd.org/sti/stpolicy
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