Boardroom meeting with photo taken looking through a glass wall, with male and female colleagues sitting inside

5 things science organisations can learn from the largest ever UK study of women at work

By Kathryn Nawrockyi, Gender Equality Director at Business in the Community (BITC)

I recently joined a highly engaged group of delegates at the Science Council General meeting to talk about Business in the Community and our ground-breaking research into the lived experience of women in work.

Project 28-40 listened to the voices of 23,000 women, making it the UK’s largest ever survey of women at work. We uncovered the hidden tensions within workplace cultures, which help to explain why employers are still struggling to create more gender-balanced workforces. The research enabled us to design innovative, meaningful and sustainable solutions to gender inequality at work. Here are five things science organisations can learn from Project 28-40:

1. Women don’t need to change

Project 28-40 overwhelmingly told us that women are confident, ambitious and want to lead. But women in STEM were even more likely than women from other sectors to agree that as a woman ‘you have to be extra special to succeed’. There are numerous studies demonstrating bias for men in the STEM fields; women are ranked less competent and offered less money than men with the same CV, and articles with women in dominant author positions receive fewer citations than those with men in the same positions. Employers should start focusing on broader, cultural initiatives to fix the workplace, not the women.

2. The in/visibility paradox is driving inequality

Women are so often the minority in their fields, they feel they are more visible as ‘women’ than as qualified professionals. This means there is a particular pressure on women to keep restating their credentials. At the same time, the total lack of visible women compared to men, senior or otherwise, sends a clear message that science is still the domain of men. Women need more than just individual role models; they need to see women at every level of their organisation to be certain that they can succeed too.

3. Bullying and harassment is widespread

Despite well-meaning policies, women regularly experience bullying and harassment in the workplace, including sexual harassment. Bad behaviour needs to be called out and dealt with seriously. Leaders need to make bold decisions, open up conversations with employees, and send a clear message that bullying and harassment – including sexist banter and jokes – are not acceptable.

4.  It’s not just about getting women into STEM

Science organisations can play a huge role in breaking down gender stereotypes to achieve workplace equality. However, gender equality will not be achieved unless we also work to attract men into female-dominated professions. Purely focusing on recruiting women into masculinized fields risks devaluing traditional ‘women’s work’ even further.

5. Employers need to get the basics right

Getting the basics right is crucial to creating inclusive and gender-equal workplaces, but what does this really involve?

Employers need to have regular, honest conversations about career development and life outside work with both men and women. There will be times in your employees’ lives when they will need to take a step back, so allowing for non-linear careers is essential. Other internal processes, from flexible working requests to recruitment and promotions, should be regularly reviewed and monitored for bias. Improving workplace culture is equally important in STEM, and inclusive leadership is key. Managers need to develop all their team members to ensure minority groups are not being excluded.

What do you think about these 5 lessons we can learn? Leave a comment below.

At Business in the Community, we work closely with our members from STEM industries to advance gender equality at work. Our expert advisers help our members identify areas for change and develop a strategic action plan, whilst providing relevant tools and resources. We offer unparalleled opportunities to network, learn from, and share best practice with peers.