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Opinion: Research careers need to be flexible – for all

16 Oct, 2012

Kay Davies

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. One of the obstacles to more women breaking through to senior positions is the inflexibility of research career paths. The Wellcome Trust is doing its part to rectify this, write Professor Dame Kay Davies and Sir Mark Walport.

What proportion of board members of FTSE 100 companies are women? Not half, not even a quarter – just 15 per cent. According to a 2011 report by Lord Davies it would, at the current rate of change, take over 70 years to achieve equality on these boards.

This disparity is not unique to business. The further you move along the scientific career pathway, the fewer women you see. Recent analysis of a group of Wellcome Trust-funded PhD students showed that while 93 per cent of the men were still working in academia three years after completing their PhDs, the percentage of women was only 48. Representation at the senior levels is even lower. Only 30 per cent of lecturers and a mere 12 per cent of professors in the UK are female.

Understanding the reasons behind these stark statistics is not straightforward. It can also be difficult for anyone who has taken a substantial career break to return to research. Various organisations are working to address these issues and, here at the Trust, we’re trying too.

For example, we’ve created Research Career Re-entry Fellowships, which provide an opportunity for researchers who have been away from the bench for over two years to rejoin the workforce, as well as the chance to work flexibly on our grants. While we strive to develop ways to ensure that we offer fair and flexible grant funding, the patterns of behaviour and the choices women make don’t appear to be changing significantly. Clearly, we can and must do more.

So we are making it easier to find details of our relevant funding schemes and other information that promotes flexible research careers for women and men, by gathering this material together on a new web page. We are changing our grant application forms so that they prompt people to tell us about past career breaks and part-time working, and to request flexible working if they wish. We will also be asking universities where we fund how they support flexibility and equality in the workforce.

We are looking at how our flexible funding approaches are making a difference. We keep track of the demographics of our applicants and awardees and we will use our Career Tracker, a longitudinal study of Trust awardholders’ careers over time, to inform what we do in the future.

We believe passionately that breakthroughs in research emerge when the most talented researchers are given the resources and freedom they need to pursue their goals. Success in this demands diversity – of people, ideas and approaches. So we will continue to provide flexibility in the range of scientific career opportunities that we offer.

Professor Dame Kay Davies and Sir Mark Walport 

Professor Dame Kay Davies is a Governor and Sir Mark Walport is Director of the Wellcome Trust. Find out more at our flexible research careers web page. This article originally appeared in Wellcome News 71 [PDF].

Image credit: Wellcome Images
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Wallace permalink
    17 Oct, 2012 5:32 am

    The steps the Wellcome Trust are taking are very positive. But it’s not just funding that needs to change. In many families with small children, the mother has the primary childcare responsibilities. Although she will have childcare arranged during work hours, arranging cover at weekends can be difficult. This means women miss opportunities to attend, present at and network at conferences spread over weekends, or with important sessions in the evenings even when they are local and commutable. Wellcome could do more on this front to schedule more of the conferences it organises during the working week.

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