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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 August 2005, 04:38 GMT 05:38 UK
Women 'take back seat' in science
Woman in a laboratory, PA
Women are often not encouraged to pursue science
The path for women in science remains a "difficult trek", according to a group of US researchers writing in the latest edition of Science magazine.

They say that although there have been major advances, academic institutions are still not making full use of the pool of women scientists available.

Female scientists sometimes find the campus environment "chilly" and may encounter "unconscious discrimination".

They also face the extra challenge of balancing home and family life.

"The good news is we have made progress," said lead author Jo Handelsman, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US. "The bad news is we still have a long way to go to achieve equity."

There is still a lot of covert and overt hostility on American campuses
Jo Handelsman, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Professor Handelsman and her colleagues believe there are a range of challenges that can derail women and prevent them from fulfilling their full academic potential.

"There is still a lot of covert and overt hostility on American campuses," she said. "Some of it is outright illegal behaviour, but most of it is subtle. It makes women feel undervalued and not respected."

Professor Handelsman and her colleagues say that, broadly speaking, there are four areas within which woman encounter hurdles.

  • The pipeline: In some fields, notably engineering and the physical sciences, fewer women are trained to the PhD level and encouraged to pursue academic careers.

  • Climate: Many women scientists who left the profession said they did so because of hostility from colleagues. According to the researchers, this atmosphere is invisible to many men, who tend "to perceive a better climate for women".

  • Unconscious bias: According to the report, some people within science are unconsciously biased against women. The researchers cite a study which revealed that people evaluating work were likely to give it lower scores if they knew it was by a woman.

  • Balancing family and work: Professor Handelsman claims that family responsibilities are mostly taken on by women, making it harder for them to progress in academic careers.

    "The responsibilities for family caretaking continue to fall disproportionately on women," she said. "Universities aren't set up to deal with family issues."

    Woman in a laboratory, BBC
    The report says better child care facilities might help women get ahead
    Child care

    There are a few things that could be changed, Professor Handelsman suggests, which would help women balance family and work, such as on-campus breast-feeding rooms and child care facilities.

    Alice Hogan, director of the National Science Foundation's Advance Programme, an initiative developed to analyse the impact of efforts to advance women in science, believes it is highly worth while investing in female talent.

    "While we have made progress in attracting women into most science and engineering fields, we still see fewer women with doctorates," she said.

    "After investing in creating this pool of highly trained talent, we should see a high rate of return - productive, creative and respected teachers and researchers attracting more students into fields that might [previously] have seemed closed to them."

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