Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why gender diversity?

Why is it important to have more women in science? (Note: I am using science inclusively, that is, I imply ‘and engineering, technology, mathematics and medicine’.)

Broadly there are two approaches: justice and the business case.

1. Justice

In the preface to SET Fair: A Report on Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET Fair (2002)), Baroness Greenfield wrote

‘I have a strong personal conviction that any individual should be able to work in science to the extent, and at the level, appropriate for their personal choices, and commensurate with their abilities, but without gender as a constraining factor.’

I agree. A system that, for example, makes it much more likely that a woman with a baby or small child will be squeezed out of science than a man with similar responsibilities is simply unjust. This may appear to be an uncontroversial statement but one nevertheless hears it said that women ought to choose between having a family and having a fulfilling career commensurate with their abilities.

2. The Business Case

The SET Fair report lists four business reasons for greater gender diversity in science:

  1. Competiveness – the UK needs the best people engaged in SET
  2. Return on Investment – we do not want to lose expensively trained individuals
  3. Benefit to Science – a more diverse workforce brings new perspectives and priorities
  4. Missed markets and skills – 50% of customers are women so companies could be missing out on potential markets.

I will examine some of these benefits more closely in subsequent posts, for example, what does ‘best’ mean? However, let’s look at this just as a business case. To whom to the benefits accrue? Firstly, to the UK as a whole: there are compelling demographic arguments that the scientific workforce will need to be drawn from a more diverse group than is currently the case in order to meet demand. Also, the loss of expensively trained individuals is a loss to the country as a whole. Secondly, technology-based companies, both because wider participation would widen the talent pool and through the new perspectives and potential new markets that greater participation of women in the scientific workforce would bring.

What happens, however, at the level of a research group? Suppose a principal investigator has a project with two years funding and hires a woman who subsequently wants to take six months maternity leave. In the UK most research sponsors will pay for the maternity leave, but they won’t necessarily pay for cover, even if a suitably qualified person can be found, or to extend the contact to make up the lost time. Even if the research sponsor will pay for cover or a contract extension, the research programme has been disrupted, with the risk that the principal investigator’s ability to attract continued funding has been compromised. Or consider the case of a university department. If they have a woman member of staff who wants to take maternity leave can they recover her maternity pay? Is it all of it or just the statutory component? What if they need to employ teaching cover? How will they ensure supervision for her research students? If departments have to meet these costs from their own resources then departments with more women taking maternity leave are at a financial disadvantage compared to other departments. So at the level of the research group or university department we have actual quantifiable costs and perceived risks of employing women, but vague and intangible benefits mostly accruing to other people. (I suspect, for example, that most principal investigators are more concerned about whether their own ideas are funded than with the benefits to science of incorporating a more diverse range of perspectives and priorities.)

I have used examples from the university sector but I suggest that similar considerations apply whenever short term financial performance or short term productivity have high priority.

If business case arguments are to be effective then the incentives at the level of research group and department have to be aligned with the goals from which the UK as a whole will benefit.

1 comment:

  1. I used to think that making the case for more women on the grounds of "justice" should have employers on board, but the longer I work in industry on these issues, the more I recognise that the "Business Case" is the only way we will see any change.