| Issue 43 Contents |
Dr Nicola Bidwell
Ships fit to fare unfathomed oceans are cautiously evolved. Thus the Association for Women in Science and Engineering (AWiSE), soon to be officially launched in the UK, ventures with sails furled after much forethought. The inspiration for AWiSE emerged from conclusions drawn by a working group on Women in Science, Engineering and Technology. The group was convened in 1993 by the United Kingdom Government to advise on how the potential, skills and expertise of women could be best secured. In its subsequent report The Rising Tide (HMSO, 1994) the group recognised the value of networking and mutual support among women in science, engineering and technology (SET).
The concept of a widely accessible network for women forging careers in SET became actuality with the formation of the first AWiSE branch in Cambridge in 1994. In the way of its Australian older sister WISENET, AWiSE developed from grassroots with branches propagating across Britain. Each branch was driven by the vigour of women seeking to advance the participation of girls and women in SET, and propelled by the reassurance that their efforts would be incorporated into a national initiative.
By September 1995 representatives of 7 AWiSE branches and officials from 8 different allied technology associations endorsed the constitution at an inaugural meeting of AWiSE, chaired by its president Anne McLaren (DBE, FRS).
The status and prospects of women in SET in the UK are truly a turbid sea. Indeed the impetus behind the work for The Rising Tide was the UK government's acknowledgment that 'women are the country's biggest single most undervalued and therefore underused human resource' (Realizing our Potential: HMSO, 1993).
As shown by a 1992 Labour Force survey, despite an increase in the total proportion of women working in SET over the past decade, from 8.5% to 30%. their progress to senior positions remains tardy. Reiterating the international situation there is a steep decline in the ratio of women to men with increasing seniority. Above the age of 30, women account for only 20% of the workforce and after the age of 50, women account for only 13%.
This trend is not adequately explained by a limited pool of suitable women. In the extreme case of the Engineering Institutions women represent 10% of the student membership but 0.2% of the fellows. Even in the biological sciences, in which women undergraduate students have outnumbered men for nearly a decade, few women survive to positions of seniority and influence.
Recognising that many different factors contribute to the disproportionality of women scientists throughout industry and academia, AWiSE functions to challenge the problem with a diverse pragmatism in two senses. First, is a commitment to the representation and support of an eclectic constituency of women in SET. Second, that this is most effectively achieved using a variety of approaches. AWiSE acts as a forum for women throughout SET in the broadest sense, from anthropology to mathematics, from biomedicine and engineering to environmental science. It stands as a collective voice and unified identity for women working in all areas and at all levels, from education and research, to industry, administration, and the media.
An umbrella was adopted as the provisional working logo for AWiSE. The umbrella has been replaced by a more singular emblem but the central tenet it symbolised remains intact. AWiSE consolidates the experience and perspectives of many women working in SET and mobilises the broadest spectrum of professional expertise. AWiSE endeavours to reflect a comprehensive opinion when participating in discussion of matters of importance in SET. It fosters allegiances with existing organisations with mutual interests, ranging from professional associations, such as the Women Chemists and British Women in Mathematics, to equal opportunities societies, like Fawcett, and politically active organisations such as the trades' union Science Alliance, which consists of AUT, NATFHE, MSF and IPMS. The scope for reciprocal membership with cognate organisations and the British Association for the Advancement of Science is also being pursued. These affiliations not only enhance the opportunity for the association to contribute effectively to policy formulation but also extend the possibilities for collecting and disseminating information on women in SET.
Time and again it has been remarked that there is an absence of information for women in SET, that statistics relating to their employment are deficient and career advice is sparse. AWiSE has the capacity to fill this void as a central mechanism to amalgamate and communicate information. AWiSE is co-ordinated through a National Office in central London. This houses databases and a reference library and promises, in time, to become a resource for a comprehensive range of materials and career advice. It is hoped that the strong alliances with affiliated organisations in Britain will enable cooperative distribution of newsletters and recruiting literature. Electronic networking is served by the UK e-mail list for women in SET, Daphnet, while a homepage on the WWW is being developed linking AWiSE with sister organisations across the globe.
While the specific issues concerning women in different professions of SET might vary, common factors impede their progress. The resulting lack of representation at executive levels thwarts decisions necessary for a
shift in the culture of SET, and thus the glass ceiling is reinforced. A perplexing statistic, mentioned in a 1992 Cabinet Office report, is that women held less than 13% of 917 public appointments to the Councils and Boards in SET related fields.
A clear role for AWiSE is to compensate for the skewed representation of women at the levels of influence by accenting the obstacles women face as they advance their careers in SET. AWiSE aspires to exhort employers in SET to modernise working practice, such as allowing career breaks, part-time working and jobsharing. AWiSE is pivotal in raising the priority of these issues on the political agenda and in the public consciousness. Connections with the MSF Union, which represents some 100,000 SET employees, has enabled AWiSE to organise high-profile meetings, most noteably at the House of Commons (January, 1996) and contribute to national conferences, such as on International Women's Day.
AWiSE is in close communication with the Development Unit for Women, in the Office of Science and Technology, now part of the Department of Trade and Industry. Instituted in the wake of The Rising Tide report, the Unit was charged with taking forward those recommendations accepted by the Government.
The Unit has made considerable progress towards satisfying its broad remit, despite restrictions imposed in the political rhetoric of modest resources and an intended life-span of just three years (which may be extended). In its mission to encourage equal opportunities the Unit has appealed to industry and the research councils to implement family friendly practices by arguing the savings gained by reducing the loss of skilled women.
The Unit communicates with other government departments and briefs ministers on matters relevant to women in SET. To promote the representation of women in SET at decision making levels, it issues a catalogue of databases of women in SET to departments responsible for public appointments.
The Unit is primarily an initiator and facilitator and, as emphasised in its annual report, attributes its progress to cooperation and partnerships with expert bodies. Recognising their experience and essential contribution, the Unit has brought together women in SET organisations in a number of forums and workshops. This has enabled the Unit to augment its resources to promote science to women and girls as well as permitting vital networking between the groups. Indeed, the first National Women in SET day during Science Week in March 1996, devised by the Unit incorporated activities organised by AWiSE regional branches and other associations allied to AWiSE.
Since the incipient branch at Cambridge University, AWiSE branches have sprung up across Britain from the South-West to the North-East. With independent foundations and autonomous organisation, the activities of each AWiSE branch reflect the needs and the talents of women in the local SET community. This makes for a confluent network, each branch reflects the complexion of regional employment for example local industry, in the case of the AWiSE-affiliated Glaxo Wellcome group in Stevenage; research institutes, in the case of the Wessex branch; a University; or group of Universities.
Branches enable direct mutual support and discussion for women in SET and are the best means to collect and disseminate information of special local relevance such as job vacancies, child-care facilities, or opportunities for women returning from career breaks. As a local collegiate there is the opportunity for informal mentoring for women at earlier stages as they negotiate the psychologically isolating environment of careers in traditionally male dominated fields. Some branches have organised career development workshops specifically designed for women in SET. Others organise meetings and invite speakers, facilitating the opportunity for women at earlier stages to meet role-models with whom they might identify. Such occasions are no less a celebration of the fortitude and creativity of those women who have accomplished the feat of raising a family combined with founding successful scientific reputations.
A number of branches have been very energetic in promoting SET. They have found imaginative ways to promote science to young people, thereby countering pervasive gender stereotyping. Some liaise with local women's groups such the Women's Institutes to challenge the tacit acceptance that science is an exclusively male pursuit. AWiSE is thus instrumental in widening access to SET, sharing its intrinsic beauty and fun in addition to contesting the cultural diffidence that it is the domicile of an elite.
The practicality of funding such an extensive association is in some ways aided by AWiSE's all inclusive pragmatism. Separate financing of national AWiSE and regional branches ensures individual annual subscription to National AWiSE will be modest and will not preclude membership of other professional organisations or societies.
National activity is sponsored by industry, and institutions supporting science, for instance some of the Research Councils and the Wellcome Trust, who generously provided the central office. University departments have contributed in kind, for example Cambridge Engineering department is to host the website. Wide external funding is a tangible acknowledgment by industry and academia of the vital importance of the objectives of AWiSE. This is extended to the regional level where AWiSE branches have attracted financial support from local industries and institutions.
The principle asset of AWiSE is that it is crewed by a diversity of expertise. Its broad appeal enables AWiSE to draw upon the talents and experience of women conversant in science from divergent professional avenues. So as her sails gradually unfurl and swell, AWiSE aspires to steer science, engineering and technology towards a healthier future.
If you are planning a trip to the United Kingdom and would like to liaise with one of the AWiSE Branches direct your inquiry through The Administrator, AWiSE National Office, 1 Park Square West, London NW1 4LJ, tel. +44 171 935 3282/5202, fax +44 171 935 0736, email AWiSE@wellcome.ac.uk
We have a recruiting leaflet for the national Association and a distinctive logo. Our acronym is written as AWiSE to avoid confusion with the Engineering Council's WISE campaign, which has been going since 1984.