Female scientists face barrier of `outdated' attitudes

Women and work: Report urges the strengthening of maternity provisions, childcare facilities and retraining programmes
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Science Editor

Women who want to embark on careers in science are being held back by "persistent and outdated" male attitudes in universities and research institutes, it was claimed yesterday.

A report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology said that barriers erected against female scientists involved ambiguous maternity provisions, lack of childcare facilities, and "disadvantageous requirements" for returning to work after career breaks. The conclusion will embarrass the Government which has been trying for a couple of years to attract more women to careers in scientific research.

The committee was investigating the appalling position of scientific researchers who have to subsist on a succession of short-term contracts because there are no longer enough permanent jobs available in the universities. Although there is little in the way of career structure and security for any contract researchers, the committee found the system working particularly against women.

"It is the universities' responsibility to remove, wherever possible, structural barriers to the employment of women in science by strengthening maternity provisions, childcare facilities and retraining programmes," the committee said.

It also called for age barriers in the employment of scientists to be interpreted flexibly for men or women who had taken time out of careers for family reasons.

It heard evidence from witnesses that, while the number of women in university positions in the United Kingdom had improved over the past 20 years, women had been far less successful at gaining established positions. At undergraduate level, the number of women was often equal to that of men in some disciplines, but women were greatly under-represented at high levels of seniority.

Women as professors were still a "tiny minority", even in such subjects as biology with its traditionally strong female presence, as were female Fellows of the Royal Society, the committee was told.

Last year, the Office of Science and Technology (OST) set up a development unit to further the interests of women. The initiative followed the publication of a study group report, The Rising Tide, which had been commissioned .by the then Cabinet minister for science, William Waldegrave, to examine opportunities for women in science. That report, too, had stressed the costs and difficulties of child care and the need to make it easier for researchers to resume their careers after a break for child rearing.

In addition, the Government was advised to study and promote "women friendly" management practices in industry.

A spokeswoman for the OST said yesterday that the Government "welcomed the House of Lords report". She pointed out that on 20 July, the Government had announced a series of measures, including an outline concordat between the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the research councils concerning the career prospects for contract research workers.

The setting up of the development unit to promote women's interests in science and technology and the new thinking over contract researchers' careers meant that the Government had already gone a long way to meet some of the concerns expressed by the House of Lords, according to the OST.