With new statistics revealing a lack of gender balance in science, Ellen Corrigan speaks to molecular biologist Juliana Cummins about the challenges she faces as a woman in science.
Last week, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) released figures on their gender redressing initiatives. Their figures highlighted that although gender discrimination against women in science has become less pronounced in the last century, inequality within the industry is still very real.
The new figures state that 75 percent of all applications received by SFI for funding are from male researchers in Irish Higher Education Institutions. On average, successful female applicants receive smaller awards in comparison to male applicants. Female applicants also tend to request less funding.
Historically, women in science were totally disregarded. Rosalind Franklin is a prime example of women being snubbed for their work and not receiving due credit. As an x-ray crystallographer, she was a key member of the race to uncover the structure of DNA in the 1950s. Through her practices, she achieved a phenomenal breakthrough and managed to secure a picture of DNA structure.
While reports of how the structure was truly discovered vary depending on the source, it’s commonly believed that she willingly gave the picture to two scientists – Watson and Crick. The two men, who were also researching the same area, are now both household names for their work in molecular biology.
Eventually, both scientists were awarded Nobel prizes while Franklin never received credit for her work. When her contributions were unveiled years later, she had died due to radiation exposure. Franklin is just one of many women throughout history who, despite key contributions to science, never received the recognition they deserved.
Today, there are certainly more opportunities for women in science and technology. However, as SFI’s statistics illustrate, things still need to improve. Juliana Cummins is a molecular biology graduate from DIT, and is well aware of the challenges she faces within the industry.
She explains: “I’ve always been interested in science, and it became a passion when I studied it in school. It felt like a natural progression for me to study it at third level, but it wasn’t until I started college that I realised I’d face a lot more difficulties than my male classmates once we graduated.
“My course was a mixture of biology, chemistry and physics courses and the majority of students were female. Of the eighteen graduates in the final year of my course, only two of those were men. Evidently, there are plenty of women interested in science but fewer opportunities for us within the field.”
It is a fact that there are less women than men occupied in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs. According to the Central Statistics Office, there are roughly 117,800 people working in jobs that utilise STEM skills in Ireland. The proportion of women employed in these roles stand at less than 25%. While this is accepted as a given, it’s rarely asked why women hold fewer positions.
Juliana explains: “In my opinion, gender roles play a major part in stalling or even ending a woman’s career in science. Essentially, women who take maternity leave after having children will come back into a job and be considered less qualified for a position than their male counterparts. This is because of the loss of several months or years in their field due to raising a family.
“They may have received the exact same degree from the same university in the same year and work in the same company/academic field as a male colleague but taking leave to have children will render them ‘less qualified’ once they come back to work. Unfortunately, this means women then have to make a choice: be successful in their career or have a family.”
Thankfully, circumstances for female scientists are improving in the western world. Availability of women-driven STEM programmes are becoming widespread and popular, such as DIT’s own WAVES society for women in engineering (Women – A Voice in Engineering Society).
Current legislation allowing paternity leave in a lot of workplaces is a potential step in the right direction for gender equality in STEM fields. With men being offered the opportunity to stay home and take care of their children, there is now less pressure for women to choose family or a career.
The SFI have also launched a grant management policy to accommodate female researches during periods of maternity and adoptive leave. Under this policy, researchers have the option to hire a temporary replacement to maintain consistency within their research programme.
With such positive steps being taken to make the scientific field more inclusive for women, it’s hoped that the rate of female STEM workers will rise within the next decade and the industry will soon become completely gender balanced.