Do We Have A Gender Balance Problem in Weather and Climate Science?

Yes. How can we work to fix it?

Inspired by MIT’s report on the status of women in science, we wanted to know what the data says about the gender balance at the University of Exeter and the Met Office, from junior to senior levels.

Gender (and other diversity) statistics allow us to understand our present situation and help us find ways to increase the representation of women and other identities at senior levels in our institutions.

March’s WiC meeting provided an opportunity to discuss gender balance and gain some insight into what gender statistics tell us about our institutions. We were joined by Professor Janice Kay, Provost at the University of Exeter, and Dr Jenny Cook, data insight consultant on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the Met Office.

First it is important to note that gender is not binary, but for the for the purposes of protection of identity anyone who has identified as ‘Other’ data are not shown. Penny Maher introduced some data from the University of Exeter, looking at the student numbers feeding climate disciplines at Exeter and showed that most Geography undergraduate and postgraduate students are women, while in Mathematics and Physics more students are men. For both Geography and Mathematics, there are more women in the lower salary grades compared to men (in both post-doc and permanent staff). Furthermore, there are more men employed in Geography and Mathematics (in both post-doc and permanent staff). This raises several important and interconnected questions:

  1. How do we increase the participation of women in undergraduate and postgraduate Mathematics and Physics?
  2. Why are women employed at lower grades than men in Geography and Mathematics? Are women being employed at lower rates or are women missing out on opportunities to progress into more senior roles? What could be the barriers here?
  3. What can we do to support women’s progression in the scientific workplace?

Janice Kay highlighted that there is widespread desire for the University to be an inclusive environment, and the University is committed to fostering a supportive and inclusive environment. Every aspect of progression and reward is scrutinised to aim to close the gender pay gap, which has been reducing in the last few years. There has been improvement in STEM colleges but still a long way to go. There is also an important need to consider intersectionality and ensuring we create an environment in which everyone can thrive.

Jenny Cook spoke as an EDI data consultant professional, first highlighting some of the factors contributing to gender imbalance. Women are impacted at every stage of life, encountering gender stereotyping and unconscious bias from the beginning. This sentiment was echoed in the meeting chat that the issues attracting women into male dominated professions are widespread across society and from an early age. Anecdotally, many women who achieve in science today come from supportive homes where these issues are understood, and encouraged to reject stereotypes, or attended all-girls schools where there was more support for girls studying traditionally male dominated subjects.

Jenny outlined two typical issues of horizontal segregation across organisations, where we often see more women compared to men in more administrative focussed areas, and vertical segregation, where women are concentrated at lower levels of organisations. At the Met Office, like in many organisations, there are more women working part time compared to men, reflecting their additional caring responsibilities.

At the Met Office there is good gender diversity in more junior roles, and language in job adverts is specifically considered to ensure it is not biased toward attracting men. However, as you look at more senior levels in the research science areas of the office, roles are dominated by men.

In general, women across the workforce are more likely to work part time, face discrimination, be satisfied with current pay, take time off with stress, take time away from workforce, face gender stereotyping and unconscious bias. All these factors make it more difficult for women to progress and lead to fewer women at senior levels – the so called ‘leaky pipeline’.

A meeting attendee reported that Julia Slingo in 2013 showed that 27% of Met Office staff in Science were women. Recent figures show it’s now 32% in the Met Office ‘Science’ area although there are more women in the science profession in other parts of the office. Including those scientists in the Applied Science area brings the percentage to around 37%, though when scientific software engineers are also included the percentage is reduced to 34%. However, the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect means that there are systemic issues and so although the gender diversity is improving overall, it is poor at senior levels, and time alone will be unlikely to simply lead to change. In addition, we must consider intersectionality – proportions of women from BAME and lower socio-economic backgrounds are much lower, which must also be addressed.

One of the first questions referring to the University data was ‘Are we hiring men at greater rates at higher levels or are they negotiating higher pay?’ and quite simply, this is very difficult to unpick given the lack of data available. Attendees talked about how women do not typically push for higher starting salaries. Research into academic promotions, shows that woman apply less, so promotions workshops can help encourage everyone to apply.

Encouragement tends to really help women ‘play the game’ – negotiating salaries and applying for funding are two examples for example. However, it was also noted that the system at the Met Office to ensure equal pay means that everyone is recruited onto the bottom of the salary band, and negotiation is not an option for anyone.

Other anecdotes shared by attendees include: a new staff member assuming a Professor was filling in for a colleague, and after an hour of answering questions the staff member asked when the Professor would be arriving for the conversation, and a female attendee who removed their name from their CV was assumed to be a much older man by a hiring committee because of her experience.

The problems surrounding lack of gender diversity at senior levels are very complex and multi-faceted and we cannot list all the reasons here. To address these problems properly, institutions need to devote time and effort to understanding their quantitative data, perhaps through qualitative surveys from staff to really gain an understanding of the issues. It is likely that many initiatives and a culture change are required to realise true gender diversity across organisations – small isolated improvements will have only limited success.

As is often the case, the potential importance of mentoring and training was discussed. To make a true culture change, mandatory learning about why we need diverse organisations and how everyone needs to play a part in actively helping with organisational aims may be the way forward.