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Women 'undervalued' in science

Unconscious discrimination to blame

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Women scientists can face a chilly, and sometimes overtly hostile atmosphere in the world of scientific research, according to a group of researchers in the US. In a paper published in Science the group writes that although progress has been made, women still face a "difficult trek" if they chose a career in science.

Professor Jo Handelsman from the University of Wisconsin-Madison led the study. She told the BBC: "The good news is we have made progress. The bad news is we still have a long way to go to achieve equity."

She says that on US campuses there is a lot of discriminatory behaviour - much of it unconscious and subtle, but some of it is "outright illegal". The effect is that many women scientists feel "undervalued" and that they do not have the respect of their colleagues.

The study identifies four main areas where women researchers face particular challenges: fewer women entering the arena, a sometimes hostile working environment, and an unconscious bias against women - the researchers cite a study that found people evaluating work will give lower scores to work they know to have been produced by women.

Further, women are often the primary care-givers at home, and face the additional challenge of balancing their home and family lives. Handelsman has called for universities to become more family-friendly environments, to help women balance family and work.

In June this year, the Scientific Women's Academic Network launched a six-point charter, aimed at changing the academic culture in the UK in a bid to stop so many women leaving the profession. The network said women often felt undervalued by colleagues and unsupported in their career progression.

Our very scientific and representative survey of the one female research scientist we know has revealed that this kind of discrimination is present in the UK as well. Our secret squirrel goes further, telling us that a negative attitude to women researchers is evident in both male and female colleagues, if not slightly more so among other women. ®

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