Female tech researchers
are no drop-outs

17 May 2006

Female researchers do not find sectors such as science and technology as attractive as other sectors such as humanities and social sciences. However, according to a report presented at a conference in Vienna yesterday, female researchers in science and technology are less likely than their female counterparts in other disciplines to drop out.

The report on Women in Science and Technology (WiST) – The Business Perspective highlights the existence of a “leaky pipeline” which sees a progressive decline in female representation at the higher stages of career progression. While this is evident in many areas of research, the report found that in the area of science, engineering and technology that is not so.

It found that while many more young men enter education in science and engineering than women, there is no gender-specific leaky pipeline. “Women and men drop out at the same rate. This means that the number of women entering science and technology education is relatively low compared to other areas but within the academic setting the pipeline does not leak as much in the hard sciences as it does in the social sciences and humanities,” the report states.

The WiST report also alludes to the reasons why female students do not opt for science and technology training have been researched extensively. One of the assumptions is that the stereotype of engineers as logical, rational, machine-oriented people does not fit with the self-image of women as ‘people-oriented’ thus, it is assumed, women are less attracted to science and technology. The report refers to another study which confirmed the hypothesis that women are more attracted to interdisciplinary engineering curricula and says a stronger emphasis on social and environmental aspects of technology would make science and technology programmes more attractive to women.

Interdisciplinarity, it seems, contributes not only to the content but also to the social climate. Students’ fear of isolation is a significant decision-making factor in their choices to leave science and technology education. Female students from the UK, Slovakia and Austria experienced feelings of isolation, whereas in France women feel accepted overall and even appreciate their ‘exotic’ status.

A UK survey revealed that 35pc of the female students in computer science choose not to pursue a career in their field of study as they expect the environment to be ‘too male’ and anticipate a lack of career progression.

Other UK research carried out among former IT professionals in the UK pointed out that the major drivers for women leaving this profession are related to the long working hours and total commitment to the job, the lack of flexibility in balancing work and private life and the organisational culture which lacks the atmosphere of inclusiveness, the WiST report says.

The conference was organised by the Austrian EU Presidency and the European Commission and based on 12 months of work with multinational companies. The objective of the conference and the WiST report is to examine what can be done to attract more women researchers into industry and to keep them there.

European Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik commented: “If Europe is to become a world-class destination for science then we need to make better use of our female scientists. Industry needs them, our education institutions need them and our policy choices need them. If we don’t create a fairer system where all can participate equally we lock out a huge pool of talent and potential that we just can’t afford to lose.”

By Elaine Larkin