Did you say “glacial”?

“The situation is improving very slowly, but it’s glacial.” This is Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s depressing assessment of the effects of the many and varied initiatives to increase the number of women working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers in the UK.


Speaking at CERN as part of our own drive to increase diversity, the internationally renowned astronomer and passionate campaigner for increasing the number of women pursuing STEM careers emphasised the importance of tackling the problem at government level. “For decades, we have had very committed people doing great things in isolated initiatives but there’s not much to show for it,” said Dame Jocelyn. “We need political pressure and we’ve got to think about changing the science culture.”

Getting both recognition and ownership of the problem at the highest levels of government is essential. Dame Jocelyn cited parental leave following the birth of a child as one extremely influential change. Evidence suggests that male scientists in Finland (where parental leave is shared between both parents on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis) who return to work after three months leave caring for a new baby advance faster in their careers. It’s not clear why this happens, but Dame Jocelyn suggests that the additional thinking time that this break from the daily work routine allows the brain to be more creative. Cultural and legislative changes on this scale require commitment from the top of government.

Changing science culture is not easy and Dame Jocelyn talked about the importance of overcoming unconscious bias in recruitment, and the benefits of embracing diversity in project teams - many of the measures that she believes will encourage more women to pursue or remain in STEM careers will also benefit other minorities.

One national initiative that is having a positive effect is the UK Athena SWAN charter scheme in which UK universities analyse their statistics and work practices and identify practical and cultural improvements that will promote women’s careers in STEM. The universities are awarded a gold, silver or bronze award based on their efforts. The UK’s Chief Medical Officer has stated that in several years’ time, universities applying for medical research funding must demonstrate that they have achieved at least the silver award. As researchers in every field know, future funding is a powerful incentive for change!

As a committed campaigner, Dame Jocelyn acknowledged that the UK’s problems are shared by many other countries. She concluded her talk by saying that CERN could be a powerful agent for change by ensuring or encouraging its partners and suppliers to be inclusive organisations.

Dame Jocelyn’s talk was followed by a lively discussion in which members of the audience shared their own experiences (good and bad) from countries around the world.

Watch Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s talk online here.

For more information about CERN’s diversity activities, click here.

by Stephanie Hills