Women in Science: Please mind the gender gap

Isabel Clarke

Why is it that the word “scientist” automatically evokes the image of a 40-something year old male, sporting a lab coat and lacking social skills? And why is it that in an age where gender equality is so important in today’s society, the gender imbalance in science still prevails?

It is no secret that when it comes to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) there is a significant gender gap. From Nature’s study, in European universities only 11% of the senior science faculty members are female, a great reduction from the already low percentage of those at junior faculty level (33%).  Even more shocking is the fact that 6% of UK engineers are women and for roughly the past 20 years only 20% of all Physics A-level students in the country are female.

Moving away from numbers and investigations, one only has to look at the news of this week to find an issue with the female representation in science. Yes, Dr Matt Taylor (of the Rosetta comet mission) did break the “scientist stereotype” but, unfortunately, by wearing a top covered in scantily clad women. Yes, he did publicly apologise for it. But it doesn’t fill aspiring young female scientists with hope, knowing that this is how her male counterparts may view women.

When the creator of the popular Facebook page, I F***ing Love Science, shared her Twitter profile with fans, not only did it reveal her sex but with it the inherent gender bias that is associated with women in Science:

“You mean you’re a girl AND you’re beautiful?”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait! Ur a girl?!”.

“Holy hell you’re a hottie”

The onslaught of these objectifying comments reinforces ideas that science is a male-dominated field, placing image before intellect. However, it is encouraging that some fans were un-phased despite their gender perceptions being subverted, “I’m ashamed to say I assumed you were a man. But I’m neither shocked nor affected in the slightest that you aren’t. Keep on f***ing loving science.”.

Elise Andrew summed it up perfectly in less than 95 characters, “EVERY COMMENT on that thread is about how shocking it is that I’m a woman! Is this really 2013?”.

The gender disparity is obviously not restricted to one area of science nor to a specific academic level, but is all-encompassing. Why is that? And what can be done to reduce this gap?

Why does the gap exist? Does it actually matter?

The first place to evaluate is education. Boys and girls do equally as well in Physics at GCSE level, so why in 2013 did only 10% of the 72,000 girls who achieved an A* to C grade go on to study the subject at sixth form? It’s the same every year, in 2011 46% of co-ed schools in England didn’t send a single female to study Physics at A-level. Perceptions from a young age of STEM subjects being exclusively “for boys” clearly have a damaging effect, which can in turn inhibit a potential career path in years to come. On top of this, unconscious biases develop from the “pink aisle” – toys for young girls focus on objectification as opposed to education and adventure. These are just a few stereotypes that need to be challenged from an early age.

At 16, students are expected to make decisions that shape their future and it’s at this age where females are likely to miss out on the opportunity of a career in engineering. It is estimated that between now and 2020, the UK needs 87,000 graduate engineers each year. But only 46,000 are currently produced annually. In 2012/13 one in six engineering and technology students were female. An increase of females in Physics at A-level would open the potential for a career in engineering, which would not only reduce the gender gap but fight the misconception that it’s a “boys’ subject”, as well as having a beneficial impact on the economy.

Moving onto higher education and academic careers, there is male dominance when it comes to decision-making, be that for editorial boards, academic selection committees, grant reviewing boards etc. Women are hardly present at all within these roles, which adds to the impression that STEM subjects are for men.

The Royal Society of Chemistry found that the number of females that wanted to continue into research had dropped from 70% to 37% from first to third year, with one contributing factor being that female students “conclude consciously and unconsciously that these careers are not for them because they don’t see people like them”. It is the responsibility of a university or department to ensure that they offer the support female students may need throughout their academic experience to prevent this number from dropping as much as possible. There are various factors as to why a student may change their mind on continuing their studies, but “this sense of not belonging” should not have to be one.

How do we tackle this? What is already being done?

By implementing quotas within various committees a step can be taken towards a balanced representation, providing female scientists with female role models. Being realistic, it may be appropriate to keep this value initially low as to not overburden female members, especially if they’re on a decision making committee.

Nobel laureates have created foundations to support women in science. For example, the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation supports young African women who want to become scientists and the Christiane Nüsslein Volhard Foundation supports female scientists with children.

In the UK there are various initiatives to support women in science, with many starting at a school level. Science Grrl promotes that “Science is for everyone” and has been co-operating with a number of STEM sectors to encourage girls become more involved with these subjects. In addition to this, they created and presented a report to the Government to start the discussion with academics, educators and STEM community as to how they can work together to reduce this imbalance. They also deduced that there are three factors that contribute to choosing a career in STEM, regardless of gender and should be considered in all initiatives: 1) Relevance of STEM – Is it for people like me? 2) Perceived ability – Do I feel confident? 3) Science capital – Can I see the pathways and possibilities?.

Another programme that supports women “from classroom to boardroom” is WISE. They actively tackle the “pipeline issue” of female talent within STEM subjects and aim to push the presence of female employees from the current 13% to 30% by 2020.

There is no one solution or initiative that will resolve gender imbalance in science. Unfortunately there are stereotypes, both extreme and small, that are embedded deeply within science and society. It is the responsibility of women and men to work together to challenge them and to create future empathetic leaders in children to prevent the problem deteriorating.

Not only is the gender gap an issue of social justice but also of economy. As Nature stated, “no country can afford to neglect the intellectual contributions of half its population”. More needs to be done by the academic system, be that the Government, teachers, lecturers or external initiatives, to actively encourage females to study STEM subjects at A-Level and further. Doing so increases the progress of women’s involvement in the scientific workforce and produces role models to ensure such progress continues.

Women in Science: Please mind the gender gap

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