Women have long faced obstacles to careers in the sciences, but there's a lot that employers can do to level the field, Dr Hema Radhakrishnan explains. Despite what seems like an endless debate on how few women there are in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – there is still such a long way to go.
These traditionally male-dominated subjects struggle to attract women students and that's just at the postgraduate and undergraduate level. As soon as women attempt to forge a career in science, they hit barrier after barrier. Senior roles and decision-making committees are so often dominated by men.
This gender imbalance is not, to say the least, ideal. But how can we explain it? There are several reasons. Admittedly, some women prefer to remain in more junior roles and, whatever the reason, there's not much we can do about that.
But the fact that women often have additional caring responsibilities in their homes, looking after their children or elderly relatives, creates many barriers when trying to juggle career and family. Confidence is also a major issue: bias towards men can only accumulate over time and that can knock self-esteem when ultimately deciding on a career path.
But there's so much more organisations can do. It's simple to raise the issue of equality and diversity with staff and students with sensible and well-formulated communications. Flexible working is a huge help if you have to negotiate the school pick-up. More generally, training and support are all powerful in addressing issues of gender balance in science.
At The University of Manchester, we're proud of our commitment to this cause and the highly-regarded Athena SWAN awards held by many areas across the University back this up.
The Athena SWAN charter was established in 2005 by the government to encourage and recognise the commitment to advancing careers of women in STEM. At the Faculty of Life Sciences we hold an Athena SWAN silver award and have worked tirelessly to promote equality and diversity in our staff. Our Women in Life Sciences group, which organises talks and workshops, has helped a number of our colleagues to develop their skills and advance their careers.
For International Women's Day, we launched 'Becoming the Best' which is a fantastic programme of events designed to give women in science the chance to discuss ways to advance their careers. There's also a radical new initiative, available to all our staff, on unconscious bias training, which brings the issue of gender out into the open; surely a significant step for us all in the right direction.
Our work is paying off: women are gradually improving their representation in the decision-making committees and senior positions within our Faculty. I say fairer representation of the genders can only benefit us all – men and women – by improving the experience of our students and the work of our researchers.
After all, women are half of the population, so why not embrace the skills and talents we have to offer?
Dr Hema Radhakrishnan – Deputy Associate Dean for Social Responsibility and Senior Lecturer in Optometry in our Faculty of Life Sciences.