Friday, 24 August 2007

Women in Science

Last week, I met with a woman from the Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to discuss what opportunities there are for female scientists in the Netherlands and how NWO is supporting this. Although approximately 1/3 of PhD students are female, it is clear that for many women, their academic careers stop there. In the Netherlands, women hold approximately 25% of the academic staff positions in natural sciences (including biology, chemistry and physics), but less than 20% in engineering and technology departments. With a few exceptions (most notably Turkey and Portugal), the statistics are similar for other European countries and the USA.

Why are there not more women in academic positions? Having discussed this very question with friends and colleagues, there doesn’t appear to be a simple answer. It seems that many women are put off by the competitive environment and the aggressiveness that is needed to be successful in academia. Others feel that there is a lack of acceptance of female scientists, making it even harder for them to gain the recognition they deserve. Another common deterrent is the limited child-care facilities and support for women who want to have children and work full-time. For many women, there just doesn’t seem to be enough incentive to follow an academic career.

Universities are acknowledging these issues and making more of an effort to support and encourage female scientists and engineers in their education and vocation. At Delft University of Technology, the Delft Women in Science (DEWIS) network was established to provide mentoring and coaching as well as professional and personal development lectures and workshops to female students and staff members. With funding agencies such as NWO offering subsidies for female scientists and engineers, there is clearly an effort to provide more opportunities and better working conditions for female academics. It will be interesting to see if more women take advantage of such opportunities in the coming years.

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