Women in science

Sophie Jones

In a recent blog post, physics student Caitlin O’Brien spoke about how, in light of a Horizon episode on the topic of gendered brains, the perception of science as a masculine subject is damaging to potential  female scientists. A recent Impact magazine article by Jessica Hewitt-Dean stated statistics regarding the gender gap in science, along with testimonials from two successful female scientists, but presented only shallow arguments for a lack of confidence leading to the gap. Is it not scientific ability but academic confidence which women inherently lack? Could the perceptions of science reinforce this?

The impetus behind the Horizon episode which focused on  male vs. female brains is the perceived gender gap in intelligence and in education. But it’s not the same gap it used to be. The gender gap in education has been changing rapidly, ; we now see girls outperforming boys in almost every subject, all the way up through A level. Girls, it seems, are no less able than boys in subjects such as maths and science. This may be a little surprising, given how we typically characterize science subjects as a boy’s club, but it is promising. The lack of women entering science is not down to ability, despite girls being regularly perceived as less scientifically-minded. Even up to A level girls do better than their male counterparts; in 2013 girls outperformed boys in every science except chemistry and maths, but even these were within a small margin. Yet the number of girls taking science at A level is low. In physics in 2013, less than a quarter of students were female; this was even lower for computing. Something is stopping young women from wanting to get into science. Could it be that, despite all evidence to the contrary, girls don’t feel they are good enough to do science? This belief is something I want emphatically to counter, but it is deeply, deeply ingrained within our society and within girls.

Women are often characterized as lacking the same confidence as men and this could be a deciding factor in the choices women make with regards to their career, or lack thereof, in science. It’s often been highlighted that men tend to overestimate their performance and abilities, where women tend to underestimate them. In an ideal world, this would lead to nothing more than men sometimes appearing more arrogant and women more humble, but it is actually far more damaging than that. In fact, this confidence gap is often cited in debates about the wage gap among equally qualified employees of different genders; women are far less likely to believe themselves deserving of higher pay, and ask for raises at much lower incidence than men.

High achieving women are also likely to experience the imposter phenomenon, where they fail to internalize success as proof of their abilities and competence, and instead believe they have fooled anyone who views them as intelligent or capable. This seemed absurd to me when I first came across it, but I only had to read one paper to realize how relevant and true the phenomenon is to my own experiences. In their 1978 study of high achieving women, Clance and Imes observed that “the women’s own self-image of being a phony is consonant with the societal view that women are not defined as being competent.” The societal expectations of women, if not the cause of this phenomenon, are certainly reinforcing it. Women and girls on a whole are as capable as men, and yet however many are seen individually to be competent in fields characterized as masculine, internally and externally women are found lacking. The Impact magazine article stopped with this conclusion, and thus ended on the shallow realization that women are less confident and therefore less present in science. This lack of confidence, however, has a root cause, and it is not innate.

As discouraging as this sounds, it’s actually very easy to find examples of how society limits the self-esteem of women and girls. And these instances start early. In the UK and in the US, studies have shown that boys receive more classroom attention and more encouragement than their female classmates. In their very first academic setting, girls are overlooked in favour of their male counterparts, and this can be very damaging to girls’ assessment of their abilities. It warps their perception of their own performance in class if they do not receive adequate attention. If this over-representation of the opinions and input of boys was restricted solely to the classroom, I don’t believe it would have much of an effect on girls’ view of their own abilities. However, it stems from, and is reinforced by, a larger societal emphasis on andro-normativity. Almost every aspect of our culture represents this idea that to be male is to be normal, to be female is to be other.

An easy place to look for this is in the media. Martins and Harrison conducted a Longitudinal Panel study in 2011 on the effect of television on children’s self-esteem, and found that while it raises the self-esteem of white boys, TV use lowers self-esteem in all other groups. Being white and male in a TV show is to be the hero, the friend, the villain, the sidekick, the scientist, and everything in between. Women, other genders, and other races are underrepresented and often shoe-horned into stereotypical roles which only serve to limit their potential. Some may respond that media can’t hold that much power, but media at its core is a reflection of our society. In its fiction it has the power to show us a better world. However, the proportions we see in the media with respect to men and women are often less equal than in real life. 24% of STEM jobs in America in 2009 were held by women, and in the same year, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found this proportion to be 3-8% lower in media such as prime-time TV and family films.

Not only do girls have fewer real-life role models in science, but they are significantly less likely to identify with scientists on screen. Instead, they begin to associate ‘scientist’ with ‘male’. The image of a scientist does not resonate with their view of themselves, and so it seems like there is no room for them. The Geena Davis Institute has researched representation in media going back 20 years, and has found other startling correlations. It’s no secret that there are far fewer women in films than men, but this extends beyond speaking roles and into crowd scenes: crowds in movies are on average only 17% female. This is the same low proportion of women seen in professional leadership roles, such as law partners and tenured professors. This, fair enough, may be put down to coincidence if viewed on its own. However, studies have shown in the past that men view a group which is 17% female as being equally representative, and begin to think that they are outnumbered in a group by women if this percentage is as high as 33%. It can be argued that the lower number of women in high positions in science persists because the current proportion is what is perceived as normal. Combining all these factors, it’s easy to see why girls may not feel they are able to join or continue in academic fields.

The gender gap in science is alarming, but it is not a result of ability. Other factors are at work. The representation of women in media goes hand in hand with societal perceptions of science itself. Changing these perceptions is paramount to realizing gender equality in science. With regards to public outreach, I think it’s about time to teach everyone that science isn’t about being smart. To succeed in a field such as physics, ability is not as important as curiosity and hard work. Studies have even shown that the best way to encourage girls to pursue science is simply to acknowledge the lack of women in science.

There is no better way to prepare a girl for the future than letting her know exactly what stands in her way. In her blog post, Caitlyn O’Brien balks at being labeled as the exception, and in an ideal world we wouldn’t be the exception. But for the time being we are, and we need to make sure girls know that that has nothing to do with what science is, and everything to do with what people think science is, and what they expect to see within it.

Author’s note: this article uses binary gender terms and cis-normative assumptions to parallel the arguments surrounding this topic and make use of binary gender statistics. I would however like to acknowledge that gender is not a binary, and is a societal construct not inherently linked with biological sex.


Women in science

One thought on “Women in science

  1. Gracie Lou says:

    Excellent post, Sophie! Thanks for pulling together the stats and linking references – I’ll be keeping the link to the post handy for those instances when someone wails the usual ‘but girls are just not interested / can’t do sciences’ baloney.


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