Women in research: have we reached gender equality?

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘press for progress’ – a call to communities, institutions and workplaces to think, act and be gender inclusive. How does Research and Information – the department that houses the Commons Library (and other teams) – perform as a workplace? And what challenges do women in research and information careers still face?

How are women represented in the Commons Library?

First the good news: our Research and Information team is well represented by women. I’m the third female House of Commons Librarian: the first was Jennifer Tanfield in 1993.  Around 60% of our section managers or directors are women, and in the team as a whole, 42% staff are women.

It’s a family friendly place to work. We offer flexible working, the option to work from home, compressed hours and part time working. And in the Commons Library, women are often a subject of our research, and not just on International Women’s Day. We have regularly updated briefings on Women in Parliament and Government, Women in Public life, Professions and the Boardroom and more.

What about the wider research community?

The research and library sector generally is well represented by women.  For example, in my last role leading Natcen, a social research organisation, our main rival at the time (TNS-BMRB) was also led by a woman. Two of the UK’s National Statisticians have been women.

It’s not always been like this though. Women in research are fortunate to benefit from early pioneers: for example, the first full-time female clerk in the Commons Library started in 1946. Another female clerk appointed in 1962 only got the job after it was unsuccessfully initially advertised as open to men only – which seems incredible to us now.

Although much has changed for the better since then, there is still work to be done to achieve true equality.

Five reasons we shouldn’t be complacent

New gender barriers

As research and information develops, new gender barriers (sometimes self imposed) may be established. Data science is a good example: a wonderfully pioneering discipline for women to enter, but in danger of becoming disproportionately male. Organisations like R-Ladies are doing a great job of promoting gender diversity in the R community, but more needs to be done.

Self-confidence is key

Some areas of research require great self belief and confidence, and don’t always appeal to women. Political opinion polling is a good example: Professor Jane Green is a rarity in the world of political opinion research celebrities. And it’s worth remembering that it’s not just about women having the same level of self-confidence as men. Often when a man gets something wrong his own reputation takes a hit. But when a woman gets something wrong it can affect the reputation of all women in her industry.

The glass ceiling still exists

We shouldn’t fool ourselves that there is no glass ceiling. I’m one of only three women on the House of Commons Executive Board, alongside six men. None of the three women on the Board have children (although of course we have other family and caring responsibilities). Despite the changes to maternity law and provision, we still see women impacted more than men by parenthood in the quest to make life work.

Would a male colleague say that?

I regularly have conversations with women I work with challenging their assumptions about ‘where next’: women who insist they are ‘happy for now’, not ready for the next step, or believe that a job is obviously most suited for someone else. I regularly encourage women by asking: would you expect a male colleague to say that?

‘Aggressive’ v ‘Direct’

While it is by no means universally true, behaviours in the workplace are often unconsciously considered gendered, and this is just as true of research and information. Even where evidence is being used, a woman is more likely to be considered ‘aggressive’ where a man might be considered the more acceptable quality of ‘direct’.

Having said all of this, Research and Information remains a place where women can flourish in their careers. We’ve moved on in great strides since 1962 and ‘men only need apply’ job ads, but we still face challenges to true equality.

Image credit: Portrait of Penny Young by Jessica Taylor, UK Parliament