Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Absence of Data

This is the first of a series of posts on the use of data in the area of women in science. I spent thirty years working as a physicist. My first reaction to any problem is to get a feel for what it means quantitatively. For example, how many women are there studying SET subjects, how many researchers, how many lecturers, how many professors? The next question is: what can be deduced from the data? Can we identify the critical points in a career in academic science where we are most likely to lose women? What steps should we take now? What further data would help us identify issues and further steps to improve the situation? The remarks in this and the next few posts are not intended to suggest that there is no problem. I spent six years working towards the improved representation of women in SET. I would hardly have done this if I did not believe there are genuine constraints on women’s participation. My motivation for the next few posts is a strong personal belief that progress in this area depends on properly interpreting relevant and meaningful data and information.

My first comment is about the absence of data. When I started working in the area of women in science, as opposed to being a women in science, I was struck by the number of times a Head of Department would tell me that there were x% women in his department and when I checked the actual numbers I would find it was (x-10)%. It seems to me that if you are genuinely interested in improving the numbers of women in science the very first thing you would want to know is how many you actually had in each grade. Presumably in their scientific work they don't just guess when the actual figures are easily obtainable?

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