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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 June, 2005, 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK
Charter help for women scientists
Photo of a woman in a lab
Women scientists in academia are not treated equally
A charter for women in science, engineering and technology has been launched to help tackle gender inequalities in UK universities.

The six-point charter, launched by the Athena Project and the Scientific Women's Academic Network (Swan), aims to stem the loss of women scientists.

All universities that sign up must commit to six principles to bring about cultural change within academia.

There will also be awards to recognise institutions that make changes.

"Becoming a charter member will help universities to make practical, positive changes," said Dr Louise Archer, charter co-manager and Swan founder.

"The awards will also recognise, celebrate and publicise the good practice that already exists."

A University of East Anglia study earlier this year showed that men still occupy the majority of key positions in UK academic science.

Many women scientists feel undervalued by colleagues and unsupported in career progress.

1. To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation
2. To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation
3. The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern, which the organisation will address
4. The use of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the university recognises
5. The transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science can be particularly difficult for women and requires active consideration by the organisation
6. The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine
The charter aims to help universities with action plans to overcome this problem.

Ten universities have signed up so far, including Bristol, Cambridge, Heriot Watt, Oxford and Southampton.

The changes that are being called for apply at all levels of academia.

The charter highlights action needed to improve the working conditions of women scientists at departmental and organisational level.

"The charter is exciting and innovative because it combines the real-life views and experiences of women in SET [science, engineering and technology] departments across the country together with the Athena's established track record in identifying good practice in the sector," said Dr Archer.

Return to work

Harvard University in the US recently announced it is to spend $50m (27m) on women scientists over the next 10 years, after its president made controversial comments about their aptitude.

Lawrence Summers said the money would be used to reform the way women in engineering and science were treated at every level of academia.

The Athena Swan Charter's development, from a kernel of an idea at a conference in 2002, has also had a boost of support from the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC).

The UKRC's work, backed by the UK government, is meant to help combat the under-representation of women scientists in their fields - within industry as well as academia.

It recently estimated that about 50,000 women scientists are not using the sciences and engineering qualifications they gained, even though these skills are considered vital to the UK economy.

Only a third go back to jobs related to their skills after time away from work.

Many take time away to have children but face barriers when trying to return to the science, engineering and technology industries, generally.

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31 Oct 03 |  Education

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