Image: Artemis from churl han's Flickr PhotoStream

In a previous blog in 2015, commenting on the film ‘Suffragette’, I compared the situation for women in science depicted in the film with modern times. One of the main characters, Edith, was a qualified pharmacist but had been denied her ambition to pursue a career in medicine. A hundred years later, we have a number of initiatives intended to improve the situation for female scientists, but I wonder if that much has really changed? One of these initiatives, Athena SWAN (an unfortunate eponym of the ancient capital of patriarchy) is supposed to deliver gender equality in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine or STEMM subjects. Even here, where real time and resource, even regulation has been applied ‘there is no evidence yet to suggest that the introduction of the Athena SWAN charter… has led to a measurable improvement in the careers of females employed in UK medical schools.’ What kinds of barriers are women still facing in this field? Is gender equality possible?

There is growing evidence of an ongoing gender gap in STEMM in terms of women in senior positions, retention, publishing, receipt of funding and so on. A range of studies have highlighted key disparities in grant capture: female PIs receive significantly less cancer research funding (in terms of numbers of grants and amounts awarded);  significantly smaller grants in biomedical research; significantly less funding in global infectious diseases research.There is some evidence that female first authorship is increasing overall, but in many sub-disciplines of STEMM there remains significant disparity.

In an attempt to address this, in February 2019, the Lancet published a special issue on ‘Advancing women in science, medicine and global health’ highlighting ongoing issues as well as considering areas where some progress has been made including significant increases in the numbers of women entering medical schools:

“Despite decades of recognition, these problems have proved stubbornly persistent. It is now commonplace for organisations to make public statements valuing diversity, hire diversity officers, and implement programmes to advance women’s careers. Yet, all too often, such programmes locate the source of the problem, and hence the solution, within women and their own behaviour.”

Also in this issue, Kang and Kaplan debunk common myths about gender disparity: that only bigots are biased; people can be trained to think differently; not enough females are choosing science careers; promoting women contravenes meritocracy; women need fixing to be more assertive. Solutions they offer include requiring senior leaders to act as role models; valuing diversity to change institutional norms; sponsorship programmes; specific behavioural targets rather than abstract attitudinal goals; and organisational accountability.

This article functioned well as a provocation but led me to consider my own experience of these issues. What follows is anecdotal; anecdotalism is, of course, framed as the enemy of evidence-based practice. Yet most clinical interventions stem from some initial form of anecdotalism and so it seems worth offering some personal reflections on how gender has impacted on my career in STEMM as a way to explore whether any of the proposed solutions might help.

In my mid-teens, a female psychiatrist (a friend of my parents) was visiting our house. In conversation, she mentioned that as a psychiatry registrar she had undertaken (uncredited) the core research activities that led to the publication of a widely used measure of psychopathology attributed to a senior white male professor.  In spite of this early warning, I naively believed things had changed and that meritocracy was somehow now intrinsic in STEMM. My early career was marked by what I now regard as luck, but which at the time I misread as proof of meritocracy. My first line manager (Professor Phil Richardson) noticed that I would nearly always come up with good quality work; he valued and credited my contributions. Our working together resembled the sort of arrangement Kang and Kaplan describe as a ‘sponsorship programme’:  “in which sponsors become personally invested in their protégé’s career success, take risks to champion them for recognition and advancement, and actively embed them in powerful networks”. However, while at conferences Phil introduced me to a glittering array of mainly white male professors, they would nod disinterestedly and continue their conversations as though I were invisible. Signs perhaps, that his approach was not the norm.

Phil sadly died in 2007 and I lost a lot of my professional identity; it took years to rebuild from there. Rebuilding was particularly challenging because I then had two periods of maternity leave which forced me into a completely new world of structural barriers that I had not anticipated or believed existed. In effect, my working time was now constrained by all sorts of external pressures and constraints. The gendered expectations of primary care provision for children are the oft-cited reason for the disparity in male and female progress up respective career ladders. All too frequently the proposed solution is for those lagging behind (the women) to work evenings and weekends to catch up with their male colleagues and this was the advice I was given too.

Maternity leave, and my consequent absence or invisibility from the ongoing research field also impacted in other ways, including loss of authorship. Authorship disputes are common in academia but women and junior career researchers are at particular risk of losing authorship rights.  A widely accepted code of publishing ethics is the ICMJE criteria which are applied by most journals in the field of medicine. Their first criteria for authorship is that all authors must have made a substantial contribution to the conception or design of the work or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work. The three other criteria require all authors to have drafted or revised and approved the paper and to be accountable for it. Without a sponsor helping to protect one’s authorship rights, these latter criteria are hard to meet when fixed-term contracts have ended or women take maternity leave. ICMJE note that: “The criteria are not intended for use as a means to disqualify colleagues from authorship who otherwise meet authorship criteria by denying them the opportunity to meet criterion #s 2 or 3”. Yet, how can women in junior positions challenge a scenario where this has already occurred? Women could, of course, be trained to be more assertive, but as Kang and Kaplan note, fixing women should not be seen as the solution.

The vast majority of (mostly) non-professorial colleagues and collaborators male and female, in my experience, have been consistently supportive, collaborative and collegial; including my former PhD supervisor who is also of the ‘sponsorship’ mould. Kang and Kaplan suggest that leaders at the most senior level should be role models for championing diversity. My experience would suggest that this may not be because the next generation of professorial staff need role models; but because a small minority of individuals wield the most power and can have the greatest impact on junior academic careers. These powerful STEMM leaders often work at the highest ranks of academia and become embedded in national institutions on account of their seniority.

Looking for historical inspiration not a hundred but three thousand years ago, perhaps a revisioning of Athena SWAN might look to different role models in antiquity when patriarchy was not endemic outside of Greece. Archaeological evidence now points to the existence of several Amazon tribes across Eurasia led by female warriors. Enemies of the Greeks, Amazons were the equals of men in hunting and war and better represented by Artemis or Atalanta the huntress gods; with these role models in mind instead of Athena, meritocracy in STEMM may at least still be conceivable.


About the AuthorSusan McPherson is a senior lecturer in the School of Human Sciences at the University of Essex. She researches around the boundaries of clinical psychology, health psychology and medical sociology and also has interests in social history and social policy. Specific research interests include mental health, the construction of diagnoses and management of depression. Her great grandmother was Norah Dacre Fox who was General Secretary of the WSPU and in 2010 Susan co-authored her biography entitled ‘Mosley’s Old Suffragette’.