The practicalities of combining work with family are putting women off pursuing careers in science, a new Commons report suggests.
The report also says that women are under-represented in scientific professions due to ingrained bias and perceptions that science-based careers are for men.
The report, by the Commons Science and Technology Committee, says it is "astonishing" that there are still not enough women working in senior positions across every scientific discipline.
It warns that the UK cannot meet the demand for more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) workers without increasing the numbers of women working in these areas.
"It is astonishing that despite clear imperatives and multiple initiatives to improve diversity in STEM, women still remain under-represented at senior levels across every discipline.
"One compelling reason to tackle this problem is that the UK economy needs more STEM workers and we cannot meet the demand without increasing the numbers of women in STEM."
The report calls for universities to do more to keep women working in science, saying that currently around 175 of STEM professors are women.
There is "no single explanation" for the lack of gender diversity in STEM industries, the cross-party group of MPs found. "It is the result of perceptions and biases combined with the practicalities of combining a career with family".
Many people that enter a science-based academic career early are on short-term contracts, the report says, which can be a barrier to job security and continuing employment rights.
"This career stage coincides with the time when many women are considering starting families and because women tend to be primary carers, they are more likely than men to end their STEM career at this stage," the report says.
The committee calls on the Government to work with universities to review the current academic career structure, and increase the number of longer-term jobs for researchers who are at the post-doctoral stage of their career.
During its inquiry, the committee was given evidence that there is a perception among both students and parents that certain science careers are masculine rather than feminine, as well as a lack of knowledge in general about science-based jobs.
Committee chairman Andrew Miller said: "It is astonishing that women still remain under-represented at professorial levels in academia across every scientific discipline. It's time for universities to pull their socks up.
"Some universities are doing a great job at improving working conditions for women scientists, but others are not. The system of short-term contracts is hugely off-putting for many women scientists.”
He added: "It is commendable that the Government wants to inspire girls to choose science at school because this is when major decisions about future careers are made. However, such efforts are wasted if women scientists are then disproportionately and systematically disadvantaged compared to men."
A Business Department spokeswoman said: "The Government gives funding to programmes such as STEM Ambassadors, the national academies, research councils UK fellowships and the Big Bang Fair. These programmes have a wide reach and make better use of resources. These are aimed at encouraging a diverse range of people to study science and engineering."
Responding to the findings of the report, IET director Michelle Richmond, said: “This highlights the gulf between senior female professors and their male counterparts. Figures from Engineering UK show that engineering and technology has the worst gender diversity of all disciplines, with just 17.2 per cent of female academics a truly shocking statistic. It is important to support women throughout academic life and both employers and institutions can play a key role in this.
“Confidence and recognition are also key motivators for women, which is why the IET highlights the achievements of women in engineering through its popular Young Women Engineer of the Year Awards and IET Women’s Network events and workshops to develop skills.
“Academia must be proactive too, especially in marketing their jobs to women. The best practice employers show creative ways of reaching out to women in terms of job adverts and flexible working patterns and the results have been very positive, but much more needs to be done to reverse this huge gender disparity.”