IBMS member Dr Valerie Bevan has recently completed a book looking at the role of women in science
Positioning Women in Science: Knowing her Place
(to be published in 2017 by Edward Elgar)
Dr Valerie Bevan and Professor Caroline Gatrell
About the author
Dr Valerie Bevan worked in various NHS microbiology labs starting in Oxford as a Junior Technician in the mid-1960s, gaining the Institute exams and moving to London, Salford and then back to London to advance her career. She joined the IBMS in 1967, became a Fellow in 1971 and a Chartered Scientist in 2005. Her first Masters was in Applied Immunology in the 1980s at Brunel University.
Valerie joined the PHLS as Head of Technical Services in 1995 and when the Health Protection Agency was created, became Director of the Department for Evaluations, Standards and Training. For nearly 20 years, Valerie led the development of UK Standards for Microbiology Investigations and chaired the working group for developing bacteriology methods for many years. She gained management qualifications including a second Masters Degree at the University of York. Developing a keen interest in feminism, critical management and diversity issues, she gained a PhD in Management Learning and Leadership at Lancaster University. Her book, Positioning Women in Science: Knowing her Place is due to be published this year by Edward Elgar.
Valerie was a member of the IBMS Council from 2014-15 and contributed to the Science Council Diversity Strategy Group for Diversity, Equality and Inclusion. She has written articles and spoken at conferences on gender discrimination and sexism in laboratories and careers in biomedical science and contributed to a parliamentary report on gender perceptions in STEM careers in 2014. She is currently chair of the committee of the British Society for Microbial Technology, is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University Management School and sits on the Advisory Board to the Critical Studies Research Group at Durham University. Valerie lives now in Suffolk with her husband Byron. Their combined interest is classic cars. They have one son, Henry, who is a software developer in London.
Background to my book
My role as a laboratory technician in the late 1960s was notably subordinate to the medical doctors who tended to make all the interesting decisions. I remember being 'asked' to polish the Director's desk and resenting it. I also recall that because I needed to travel from Oxford to London to attend lectures for my IBMS Fellowship at St Mary's in Paddington, it meant leaving the laboratory half an hour early to catch the train. Such a favour was not given lightly and permission from the Director needed to be sought, he took some persuading that leaving early was permissible for a lowly technician. I resented so much during these first years that I kept needing to pass more exams and move posts to escape from one lot of condescension only to meet another barrier.
Over the years, I became steeped in the expectation that I should ‘know my place’ (see Newman 1995) and not threaten the status quo either in science or in management. Having gained my Fellowship, I obtained an MSC in Allied Immunology at Brunel University and progressed up the greasy career pole. Arguably, the usual career route for a biomedical scientist is not in science but in laboratory management and that is the route I took. I came to feminism and critical management studies late, studying for an MA in Management at the University of York, followed by a PhD in Management Learning and Leadership at Lancaster University.
My perspective changed as I became an expert, not in science, but in areas peripheral to science where I began to challenge the unfairness I saw around me in the institute where I worked: I realised both science and management could be challenged and I felt a new freedom. I no longer 'knew my place' and prepared quantitative data (needed to convince my scientist colleagues) showing that few women working in science made it to the top posts despite being in the numerical majority. Further qualitative research helped me achieve my PhD.
About the book
My book, Positioning Women in Science: Knowing her Place, written with Caroline Gatrell who was my supervisor at Lancaster, is due to be published by Edward Elgar in 2017. It is mainly a qualitative study based on analysing the texts from 47 women and men who work or have worked in research or diagnostic healthcare science mostly in public sector institutes. The book introduces a new framework proposing that women's career progress is curtailed by four key mechanisms which act together to disadvantage women.
Despite many years of equal opportunities legislation and pro-active initiatives, we have concluded that careers for women in healthcare research science remain limited: opportunities for women in science compared with those of men continue to be constrained; young women in science continue to experience disadvantageous treatment and receive inappropriate advice about becoming research scientists; women continue to be allocated a subordinate place within the hierarchical healthcare science and professional structures and this hierarchy means that there are many barriers to women’s career advancement.
Despite stated intentions in many government reports to effect change, there have been minimal improvements for women over the ten years while our research was undertaken. In addition, the gendered assumptions that women are responsible for the home and for children have hardly changed. Outdated approaches and attitudes of directors, senior managers, senior healthcare scientists and medical practitioners with scientific and management responsibilities to improve how gender is dealt with in science remain. What role should professional organisations take?
That science is masculine, rational and objective is widely accepted in science and by society as normal but is not noticed or commented upon (Connell 2005; Collinson and Hearn 1996). Both women and men working in science tend to accept taken-for-granted assumptions about the science world, ie people accept that masculine dominance in science is normal and that this is how the science world is.
However, the masculinised science world leads to discrimination, however subtle und unconsciously it is enacted (Rhoton 2011; Valian 2004). Men appoint other men rather than women, men favour and promote other men rather than women and rationalise their actions as being scientific and objective (see Valian 2004). These subtle actions lead to fewer women being able to advance and to make it to the top. Receiving evidence in these areas, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (HoCSTC 2014) recommends that:
diversity and equality training should be provided to all STEM undergraduate and postgraduate students. It should also be mandatory for all members of recruitment and promotion panels and line managers (p. 3).
Furthermore, women lack access to training budgets and have fewer opportunities compared with men but this is rarely noticed or questioned. In addition, women who are caring and relational are not regarded as highly in science as the research scientist who writes papers and ignores the dirty laboratory. The HoCSTC (2014) recognises that:
Evaluation of success in STEM jobs typically relies heavily on 'quantity’ . . . , technical ability and intellectual rigor, but often fails to formally highlight and recognise facets of ability which have a significant impact on actual performance. For example, academic scientists spend a considerable proportion of their time communicating (in articles, at conferences and seminars), networking, writing grant proposals, supervising students, managing staff, teaching and - increasingly - performing public outreach activities and working on the commercial exploitation of their findings (HoCSTC Report 2014, p. 22, quoting evidence from the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Network (STFC WiSTEM)).
quantitative measures of staff and job applicants’ productivity such as number of papers published and h-index should be replaced with a comprehensive evaluation of the person’s contribution to the organization and the field (HoCSTC Report 2014, p.34, quoting the STFC WiSTEM Network).
But since 2014, has anything changed?
Women tend not to talk about the unfairness and men - why should they change the way they have always behaved? There is no female discourse in science - the way we talk in science uses the language of men. How could this change? There are few if any opportunities for discussions within the university science curricula to confront the problems that women face in the science world - no talk of gender issues as gender is not part of the science curriculum. Miller, Hagen and Johnson (2002) note with regard to MBA courses that some success was achieved on one course by incorporating a session on men and masculinity, and the men in particular said they had begun to think differently (although the authors comment that this should not be taken as a model of practice) (p. 28).
We suggest that innovative ways of challenging the accepted masculine dominance in science organisations need to be investigated. Certainly, any new discourse needs to be developed involving both women and men. Arguably, without involving men in an alternative discourse that forces them to confront the difficulties women face, subtle masculinities in science will continue.
Of course, some women survive these subtle hostilities and go on to achieve great things but these women are in a minority. The women who progressed in our study seemed to be those who faced their bosses with persistence for the training they needed to advance but without antagonising them - no small feat. The most beneficial factor for those keen to pursue a career in research science was to obtain a PhD before they started in paid employment.
For the late developers and those who wished to be acknowledged as research healthcare scientists when they were already employed in healthcare science, it was very difficult for women to study for a PhD: the opportunities which seemed open to men were not available to most of the women. Those who progressed needed the support of a (usually male) medical or senior scientist advocate. When this advocacy ceased (as it invariably did), the women needed to move on to find new positions to further their research ambitions.
So what do women need to do to get on? My advice is to become an expert! Be really interested in your subject. Knowledge and qualifications are key. When you notice unfairness speak out and challenge the perpetrators and try to effect change at a local level. Be bold but tactful and do persevere….
Collinson, D. and Hearn, J. (1996), 'Breaking the silence: on men, masculinities and managements', In: D. Collinson and J. Hearn (eds.), Men as Managers, Managers as Men: Critical Perspectives on Men, Masculinities and Managements. London: Sage, pp. 1-24.
Connell, R. W. (2005), Masculinities. University of California Press.
House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (HoCSTC) (2014), 'Women in scientific careers', Sixth report of Session 2013-2014.
Miller, S., Hagen, R. and Johnson, M. (2002), Divergent identities? Professions, management and gender, Public Money and Management, 22 pp. 25-30.
Newman, J. (1995), 'Gender and cultural change', in C.Itzin and J. Newman (eds.), Gender, Culture and Organizational Change. Putting Theory into Practice, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 11-29.
Rhoton, L. (2011), 'Distancing as a gendered barrier: understanding women scientists' gender practices', Gender & Society, 25(6), pp. 696–716.