| Issue 54 Contents |
Elizabeth Heij and Sandra Eady
Science careers can be played out in universities, in public-sector research organisations, or in the R&D departments of private-sector enterprises. Our own collective experience, however, has been in universities and the public sector. Therefore, in what follows, we will refer principally to these environments, drawing especially on our experiences over the last seven years with CSIRO, Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. (Photo right: Sandra Eady)
This paper is not a quantitative assessment, although it will draw on some quantitative data from other studies. Rather, it seeks to leave the reader with food for thought and, hopefully, a stimulus to look further at a number of critical issues for women entering science.
Initially, we will look at the main career pathways in science, and examine how attractive and rewarding they are likely to be for women. Our argument will be that there are still some fairly serious roadblocks, especially for those women with the highest creative ability and the best leadership potential. We will suggest that some of the factors involved relate to changes in the way science is being carried out, while others are more widely active throughout Australia's corporate culture. The end result, however, appears to be accelerated loss of talented women from our science system in mid career when they are most productive. This is a loss we cannot afford if our future is to be based on knowledge, innovation and technological advance.
Starting at the entry point of a career in scientific research, what factors might be influencing women's choices from that point on? CSIRO illustrates fairly well the employment conditions in Australian public-sector science, so we will draw initially on observations made by one of us (Eady 1991) in a study of gender issues within CSIRO.
Postdoctoral fellowships are a common transition mechanism between Ph.D. research and an established research career. Of postdoctorals working in CSIRO in 1998, 30% were female, which is not too different from the 34% of women completing postgraduate degrees in science. Presuming the proportion of women applicants for CSIRO positions is in line with their graduation rate, this suggests there is little if any gender bias in postdoctoral appointments. Immediately beyond the postdoctoral level, however, the proportion of women drops from 30% to only 22%, suggesting that a lower proportion of women are translating their postdoctoral "apprenticeship" into an established career pathway. Furthermore, once appointed as research scientists, twice as many women (25%) as men (12%) are employed in short-term rather than indefinite positions.
The reasons for these two types of appointment bias are not clear. While we might want to question managers' perceptions of "risks" associated with women employees, and other intangibles such as preconceptions about "goodness of fit" to existing predominantly male research teams, caution is needed. A number of young women do actively choose to subordinate their early career to spouse or family, making career breaks, part-time employment, and term positions more frequent active choices among women.
Once into a research position in CSIRO, be it a term or indefinite appointment, women researchers, assessed on their science performance, are promoted at a rate equal to that of men and, since they spend fewer hours on their work, we could claim they are actually more efficient. Nevertheless, although a recent CSIRO staff poll showed that women have the same aspirations as men for long-term careers, and the same desire and willingness to be promoted to senior research management positions, only one women has ever been promoted from within the organisation to one of the 22 Divisional Chief positions. The first two female Chiefs of Division were both recruited from outside.
Also of concern for women in mid career within CSIRO is the fact that high-profile recognition for scientific achievement has been almost exclusively focussed on men. No woman has received a Chairman's Medal although there have been 47 male recipients since these awards began in 1991. In addition, since their inception in 1986, CSIRO medals have been awarded to 88 men but only one woman. Does a score of one medal in 136 really represent the relative quality of science done by women in CSIRO? We don't think so!
Over at least the last four years in CSIRO, there has been a higher turnover rate of women scientists compared to men (8.6% cf. 6.8% per annum). Since redundancy rates are the same for both genders, and fewer women exit because of sickness or death, the difference lies in women's higher rates of resignation and non-renewal of term appointments. Considering only resignations, across the more senior levels the resignation rate for women is almost twice the rate for men (4.8% cf. 2.6% per annum). In addition, of those high-performing staff selected to go through the CSIRO Leadership Development Program (LDP) since it began in 1989, 82% of men but only 25% of women still work for CSIRO. The actual numbers are small (71 men and 8 women) but the trend is a concern for the loss of talent it represents. Since CSIRO has not to this point conducted exit interviews for resignations, it is difficult to draw conclusions, but there have certainly been individual cases of women who felt they were constrained from reaching their potential, while others found irresistibly greener pastures elsewhere.
What causes our more senior women scientists to resign at a higher rate than men, and what are the possible factors that may consciously or unconsciously weigh on their decisions? This does not appear to be simply related to family responsibilities or a "trailing spouse" effect. If it were, we would expect resignations to be unrelated to whether the individual was sitting on a promotion bar or not. The proportions of women and men resigning at the top of a promotion level are, however, almost identical – around half of all resignations for both genders (women 52% cf. men 55%). It appears, therefore, that perceptions of opportunity and job conditions in the next level up have more to do with women's decisions to resign than unrelated events such as family responsibilities or spouse transfer.
What is going on here? Why do we see this lack of recognition, and a higher resignation rate for women? Are they linked?
As we see it, science essentially has two divergent career paths. They can be coupled for varying periods, depending on the individual and circumstances of their job, but essentially one track leads in the direction of intellectual status and Nobel prizes, while the other leads towards CEO status and socio-political clout. How does a scientist choose whether to concentrate on becoming ever more skilled and eminent in a chosen disciplinary field, or to switch into the management stream and seek personal achievement (and usually a higher salary) through supervising the work of others? And what does this mean for women?
A number of women scientists, such as Marie Curie and Barbara McClintock, who achieved high science honours in the past, did so via the intellectual eminence track as relative loners, often working from lower status postions on the fringes of the science establishment. They bypassed altogether the potential gender bias problems that we know prevailed in the science organisations of the day.
Theoretically, this career path is still available. The fact that we observe, in CSIRO at least, that women are promoted through the ranks on scientific merit at least as fast as men should make it attractive – shouldn't it? But what about the lack of recognition, displayed in CSIRO for example as the almost complete lack of women receiving in-house science achievement medals. Do our women scientists expect to be relegated to the same role as Rosalind Franklin in the Watson-Crick saga?
And what about the fact that establishment science is becoming progressively less hospitable for brilliant loners (of both genders). Increasingly, in CSIRO and even in universities, we are working in larger, multidisciplinary, and commercially driven teams to connect science with business outcomes. The objectives may be in the national interest, but this is hardly the conducive environment for a future Marie Curie or Barbara McClintock. Many of our most eminent science intellectuals actually spend most of their time as entrepreneurs, marketing their science to secure funding for an army of postdoctorals and junior scientists who actually do the work under intellectual guidance.
It is clear that today's trends to "big science" and big collaborative joint ventures are increasing the covert competitive forces acting on the personal-achievement pathway, making it more like the management pathway which has always been competitive, entrepreneurial, and political, with few women out in front as role models. So what is life like for women in the middle ranks of science organisations? Why are they resigning faster than their male colleagues?
With the reader's indulgence, we will digress for a few minutes out of science into the general business world where a number of surveys and case studies have looked at why women actively opt out of apparently good positions on the track to the top2. A case in point is a 1997 study of the banking industry by Professor Leonie Still3. The study showed that for more than 50 women managers resigning from one major corporate bank over an 18-month period, the main reasons for opting out were not poor pay or family-career conflicts, but frustration over lack of appreciation and understanding of both their particular skills and the processes needed for good organisational culture. These women were, not surprisingly, uncomfortable competing in a male-dominated corporate hierarchy, and frustrated by their inability to change things to produce a more gender-neutral working environment.
It seems that talented women who reach middle management levels in big organisations often want to run things differently and are giving up and opting out when thwarted for too long. The relationship between higher rates of loss of talented women out of middle management in big business, and the higher frequency of business start-ups headed by women4 is certainly no accident. A couple of recent case studies from the popular press5 are quite illustrative:
A former barrister and solicitor says of her old occupation: "The legal profession is a boys' club where you are not supposed to give a damn about people. Many of the people who run the profession are just there to make money, even if it means treating the people they pursue with extreme viciousness. I knew there had to be a better way to resolve legal disputes than to treat the world as a battlefield and destroy people's lives. The corporate world has to grasp that people are human beings not human resources." This woman now runs her own highly successful small business as a Dispute Resolver.
In another example, a skilled real estate saleswoman bailed out of mainstream real estate to run her own, very differently organised business. She says "I left the mainstream real estate market because I wanted to do something different. I was confined by the corporate rules and it was almost impossible to deviate from the rigidly defined norms of how to do business. I wanted to do business ethically, without hard sell, and I wanted to make work a pleasure rather than a soul-destroying activity. My belief was that you did not have to resort to lies, manipulation or pressure to get clients." She also wanted a business with a feminine touch: "Women have better interpersonal skills, and people feel less threatened by us." In her own business, this woman has abolished traditional hierarchies and works in the same room as her staff at an identical desk. Not one of her agents had left in the four years since she started her business.
What about the women in our large science organisations like CSIRO? Are some of the same sorts of factors behind the higher resignation rate of senior women?
By national standards, CSIRO offers women good conditions to meet family responsibilities, such as maternity leave and flexible working hours. However, most high-level training opportunities are still off-site residential and, also at higher levels, the frequency of expected interstate travel to meetings becomes punitively high for primary care givers. These factors clearly make internal advancement more difficult for women. Only 5% of men have primary responsibility for childcare as opposed to 50% of women.
A recent CSIRO staff poll showed that over 37% of women but only 7% of men believed they had been unfairly treated in the previous year because of their gender. The same poll asked staff to comment on the under-representation of senior women in CSIRO and suggest how it might be addressed. Some of the responses are quite illuminating. The following are not identified to a particular gender:
"This is a difficult issue – there needs to be a change in attitude, not so much towards women, but towards what you have to do to succeed. The long hours and unbalanced lifestyle needed for most of us to succeed is unsatisfactory to both males and females, but much more restrictive for females because of the time commitment needed to raise children. I think this shift will only come when more women are present in the workplace and we stop playing the same male dominated power game to succeed."
"Women usually have a different approach to communicating and problem-solving. This is often not well understood by men (who are making the appointments). This different approach is often seen as inferior rather than simply different. At an unconscious level, the men making the decisions feel more comfortable choosing another man, whose style they understand and whose performance, as a result, they feel more confident in predicting."
"In reality, senior staff (esp. managers) are asked to travel at short notice, work long hours and generally be on call. Snide comments are made when staff use flexible hours to attend to family commitments even though this flexibility forms part of our "official" working conditions. Simple use of this condition is often viewed as "abuse." This old-fashioned view of working hours is held by many managers and works against the career interests of all staff with families and more particularly women. Women are less likely to tolerate this competitive rather than co-operative work environment and are less willing to lead such unbalanced lives. This competitive tendency to "look good" rather than "be good" is detrimental to everyone."
"Macho style management…is widespread at senior levels of the organisation. I believe women (and many men for that matter) find this off putting and talented women that I know in the organisation have no desire at all to participate in such a system – CSIRO's loss unfortunately."
"The major problem is the "old boys club" which excludes women from informal mentoring networks, and promotion criteria and evaluation dominated by a male philosophy of competition rather than a female philosophy of cooperation."
And numerous other comments in similar vein. Amongst the feedback, however, were a number of comments that hint at the negative attitudes encountered by some of our women scientists. Again, the examples are not identified to one gender or the other:
"CSIRO always has, and always will be, an "old boys club." As long as you're male, and know the right people, your prospects are good. Women don't have the same network and never will because they are more competitive and bitchy."
"There are possibly sex related factors, perhaps related to such things as aggressiveness, ruthlessness and stamina, and a far greater interest in home making that make women (thankfully), on average, inherently less competitive for such work."
"I don't believe that in senior positions within CSIRO that women can do the job as well as a man because women are too emotional and not hard enough."
"Need better class of women candidates presenting for employment."
"I don't think you need to do anything if women have not done the training and men have well that's the way things are."
"Attract women from overseas countries where women's attitude is more ready to work in a man's world."
"It does not concern me in the least, in fact CSIRO is probably better off without them."
"Cancellation of right to maternity leave would possibly encourage appointment. Organisations can not afford this luxury."
"Is it necessary to have proportionate representation? I can't imagine there will be enough capable women."
Faced with the latent resistance generated by such attitudes, would it really be so surprising that some of the capable women finally give up? Women are, after all, less likely to see their job as defining their personal status, and more likely to see life as presenting a number of diverse options rather than a single career pathway. The business world is snapping up talented, well-trained, experienced women, and those businesses that do it best will be well ahead.
Of the large public- and private-sector organisations in Australia, we are confident that CSIRO is one of the better employers of women. The problems unearthed by the CSIRO staff poll and the study of gender balance are not specific to CSIRO. They are largely symptomatic of a latent cultural problem that, in a subtle way, pervades our entire corporate culture, including big science. It certainly appears that this latent cultural malaise could well be responsible for leakage of female talent out of science as well as corporate workplaces. If so, this is a flaw we must address. With women now making up at least 30% of the entry-level research workforce, we stand to lose a significant element of science talent; and we stand to lose in other ways as well. Women generally tend to be more focussed on teamwork, outcomes and social benefits rather than status and political power-plays. This, increasingly, is the focus science needs for the future. We are supposedly the clever country. The future of our whole society technological. We simply cannot afford to miss out on the vital catalytic role that women can play in science.
So – for a woman entering science, one of the most valuable tools for carving out a career may, in fact, be not her scientific ability per se but conscious knowledge of the interpersonal skills needed to achieve her objectives and be valued for her own qualities in a male-dominated environment.
Certainly, she needs to go into science with her eyes open.
1 Eady, Sandra J. (1999) What women have to offer Australian science. Internal Report to the Chief Executive, CSIRO.
2 Burton, Clare (1997) Women in public and private sector senior management: A research paper for the Office of the Status of Women, Department of the Prime Minister. http://www.dpmc.gov.au/osw/meburtm.htm
3 From an article entitled "Female bankers bale out at glass ceiling" reporting on a study by Professor Leonie Still, Edith Cowan University, Perth, on reasons given by women managers for leaving the banking sector. Weekend Australian 8-9 March 1997 pp 1, 6.
4 Women business owners: Emerging market seeks cash infusion. Trend Letter 10 June 1999, p4.
5 Matheson, Angela (1997) Minding their own business. Vive (Ansett Australia in-flight magazine) Feb-Mar 1977 pp 39-45.
A version of this paper was presented by E. G. Heij as the Joyce Allen Memorial Lecture, XIX Pacific Science Congress (ANZAAS) 4-9 July 1999, Sydney.
Elizabeth Heij is Chief, CSIRO Division of Tropical Agriculture in Brisbane. She was born in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1943. She received a B.Sc.Hons. in Botany at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, before completing a Ph.D. in Plant Genetics at the University of Wisconsin, USA. As a mother of four children, she worked part-time for much of the early part of her career and is today a strong supporter of continuing education for women and flexible working arrangements for parents. She also has an interest in fostering innovation in the areas of sustainable agricultural production through multidisciplinary teamwork.
Sandra Eady is a SRS at CSIRO Animal Production in Armidale. Her background is included in her article.