The issue of sexual equality is explored in this secondary assembly, using the example of female scientists and the problems they may experience within their chosen career – notably the dilemmas of a work-life balance. It challenges listeners to consider their own prioritiesResources

  • a lab coat
  • three readers
  • the assembly is based on a news story in the Sunday Times on 11 May 08.


Leader: [Wearing a lab coat] We live in an era of rapidly expanding scientific discovery. Every week we’re told of some new discovery that will improve our health, our communication, our mobility or our lifestyle. Each discovery is rapidly put into production by industry, so that we’re soon able to own our personal version. Just think of electronic communications as an example. Phones, TVs and games that were state of the art five years ago are today totally outmoded and we want the most up to date.

However, the European Commission has predicted that Europe will suffer a shortfall of twenty million skilled science and technology workers by the year 2030. We shall have the knowledge to continue the advance, but not the workforce to put it into production. The picture is no better in the United States than it is here.

What’s the cause of this shortfall? Is it because there are fewer young people going into science and technology as a career? Not at all. There’s a growing interest in the application of science. Engineering and technology courses attract higher entrance numbers than a few years ago, and nearly half of these entrants are women. To be precise, forty-one per cent of newly qualified technical staff in The US and Europe are women. But it is women with whom the central dilemma lies.


Years of equal opportunities legislation has opened up the job market to young female scientists and technicians. They’ve proved their worth alongside male colleagues, ascending the first rungs of the promotional ladder. Governments have provided facilities and created tax breaks to encourage them to return to work when they have a child. Job sharing and paternity leave have attempted to address the issues of family life. But then the crunch has come. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, more than half the women who graduated had dropped out of full-time employment in the science and technology field by the time they reached their late thirties. What has caused this?

According to the report, women are faced with a dilemma. If they wish to rise further up the ladder they must be willing to match the commitment of their male colleagues in terms of longer hours and the often tedious work of lab experiments. What holds them back? On the one hand the desire to be more directly stimulated by what they do as opposed to the treadmill of lab work, and, on the other hand, the pull of family. Many experienced women have found it impossible to balance the attention demanded by work and the attention needed by the family. Some admitted to limiting the range of their experiments in order to squeeze them into a five-day, forty-hour week, so they had evenings and weekends free. Others took on part-time jobs, usually with less potential. Many simply left the industry.

So, where does the equal opportunity lie in this dilemma? There are a number of possible options in addressing the issue:

Reader 1: I think that all women should have the opportunity to reach their full potential in their working life. This may mean employers providing better childcare facilities. An alternative would be for husbands and partners to take an equal responsibility for child care. Nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of personal development. It’s a human right. It’s also vital that we keep ahead in the economic race. We need every qualified scientist and technician.

Reader 2: However much I want to agree with the previous speaker, I think it should be recognised that men and women are different. Without stereotyping, most women are more interested in the needs of their children than are most men. Few men would feel the dilemma that faces the women we’ve been told about. If they do, then they can create the kind of partnership that allows both parents to share in both aspects of life. For most women, the sacrifice of part of their career is no match for the gain in bringing up children.

Reader 3: I believe we don’t need to work at either of the extremes outlined so far. They both sound rather stressful. I suggest we take the pressure off ourselves and lower our expectations. I suggest we consider our priorities in life − maybe people matter more than things and others matter more than ourselves. Maybe being part of team is more productive than being the boss. Maybe our main task in life is to pass on, to the next generation, the wisdom of the past and the opportunity of the future. Maybe we can compromise.


What do you think?
Those three readers have outlined different ways of addressing the dilemma that faces the women described earlier. It also faces the men who father their children and are their partners in life. It’s a dilemma most of you will face sooner than you think. For all, the intention is to discover a satisfying and fulfilling life that has a beneficial effect on those they care for.

When Jesus described a satisfying and happy life, he talked of qualities, such as humility, justice and goodness, kindness, purity of motive and the ability to resolve conflict. They are as relevant to school life as to work life, to teens as to thirty-somethings.

Think about the words of this prayer. Make it your own if you wish:

Dear God, Life is full of dilemmas. It seems there are no simple answers. May I have wisdom to take decisions that I can live with and that respect those for whom I take responsibility.


This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2008

About the author: Brian Radcliffe