“That’s not very girly” is something I have heard far too many times when telling people I study physics at university. It begins to get grating.
For some reason, science and scientists have long been presented as masculine. This is problematic for women in the field, and is, unsurprisingly, seen to discourage women from pursuing a career in science altogether. This leads to women being grossly underrepresented in the field and science then suffers due to a lack of diversity.
Despite biological differences between men and women, there is very little contrast in scientific or mathematical ability – certainly not enough to explain the under-representation of women in the scientific field1. So where did this gender biasing come from?
I will explore this question, focusing on why science is seen as inherently masculine. Note I will consider the whole scientific world, but these effects are highlighted to the greatest extent in disciplines such as physics and engineering, which are deemed the most masculine. Saraga and Griffiths suggested this was because these disciplines are more closely tied to things such as improving economic production and developing weapons; tasks that a male dominated society have deemed as valuable2.
So why is science seen as inherently masculine?
In her papers, ‘Reflections on Gender’, Keller argues that there is a deeply rooted mythology that casts objectivity, reason and mind as male, whilst subjectivity, feeling and nature are cast as female3. Objectivity and reason are also seen as fundamental pillars in the scientific world. Therefore connections to this supposed meaning of masculinity could be made. Considering this, women may be seen as contrary to science and they may be deemed unfit by those in the scientific world4.
The relation of science to masculinity can also be drawn back to one of the founding fathers of modern science, Francis Bacon. As an English Renaissance thinker who drove a scientific revolution, he introduced the scientific method, involving an empirical and inductive approach. This created the foundation for modern scientific theory which is still used today5. However, he can be seen as problematic in the history of science.
His scientific method aimed to ‘bind Nature to man’s service and make her his slave’. Some interpret this as the masculine and scientific dominating over nature and women6. His testing of hypotheses also contained clearly sexist metaphors6. This is not that surprising however. Science is argued to be a social construct, so this is simply a reflection of the social and cultural context of a much more misogynistic time.
What is worrying is that these attitudes, where women appear secondary in science, still appear to be alive today in a modern, more liberal, society.
At the World Conference of Science Journalists in 2015, Tim Hunt, a biochemist and molecular physiologist Nobel prize winner, infamously reduced female scientists to ‘teary love interests’7. Although this callous remark caused a public outcry, Hunt still insisted it was a lighthearted joke. Richard Dawkins even notoriously backed him up. Hunt also said he was in favour of single-sex labs whilst paradoxically claiming he ‘doesn’t want to stand in the way of women’. This revealed misogynistic views towards women, especially in the scientific world, are still alive.
The scientific world was exposed as alarmingly backwards.
How does this affect women in science?
The underlying gender discrimination associated with science may act as a deterrent to females in the scientific field.
Currently in undergraduate physics degrees only around 20% are female and only 14% of faculty are female4. As well as highlighting an alarming minority, these figures illustrate the gradual decrease and underrepresentation of females throughout careers in STEM subjects. This is referred to as the ‘leaky pipeline’ and can blamed on the many adversities women face throughout their scientific careers.
Critics have discussed many reasons for the disparity of women in STEM, such as lack of female role models and childcare. For example, a recent House of Commons report suggested that scientific research careers are dominated by short term contracts with poor job security at the time of life women may want to have children8. Women should not have to choose between a career and a family, but in some situations they have had no choice.
However the stereotype threat; the gender bias associated with science, is arguably the most prominent problem and cause for underrepresentation in science9.
This is likely to start in a classroom setting. In co-ed schools, science and mathematics class teachers are seen more likely to be men, and in A-level classes the majority of students are likely to be boys. A study by Warrington and Younger found that in some cases girls encountered science teachers with sexist attitudes and low expectations for their achievement. Teachers were found to have the sentiment that ‘boys frequently present more original work, whereas girls copy sentences from textbooks’10. Being consistently put down in this way would understandably discourage girls from studying STEM subjects at a higher level.
The effect of this is obvious when we consider single sex schools in parallel. Girls who attend single sex schools are almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do an A-level in physics than those in co-ed schools, arguably due to the lack of gender stereotype pressure9.
Within careers in STEM subjects, women also face a burden to not appear ‘girly’ to fit the role of a ‘scientist’11. This supports the troubling gender biasing that femininity has no place in science. It means that for women to participate in science they must have an awareness of how they present themselves as ‘women’ and this must include characteristics of a ‘scientist’. Of course, men must also present them selves as ‘scientists’, but women are assumed to innately lack these qualities whereas men are assumed to innately hold them4. This puts women in a disadvantaged position before they have a chance to prove themselves as good scientists.
Why is this important?
It could be argued that due to the widespread current success in technical fields, nothing is wrong with the way things currently are. The underrepresentation of women in these fields is obviously not negatively affecting scientific advancement.
However, through the lack of representation of women in this field, half of the intelligent scientific minds are not being heard and diversity of ideas is significantly reduced. Women should also have the right to pursue a career in whatever they want, and not have to worry about femininity being an issue.
Through reducing the gender bias in science, I believe the scientific world would thrive.
A solution would be to move forward towards a gender free scientific world. After all, the masculinity-biased view of science is extremely dated. Whilst the industry is still gender biased, women may continue to be deterred from pursuing a career in this field. Science will not progress to the extent it is capable of and women in the industry will face adversities they shouldn’t.
Feminist movements and schemes set up to encourage girls to pursue scientific subjects are a step in the right direction, but a lot more work needs to be done before gender bias stops being an issue in the scientific world.
As a final note, science is a largely male dominated field compared to other disciplines. However science is also a human endeavor and is therefore affected by the social and cultural context is placed in. Society in general may need to change before we achieve a neutral ground. The misogyny faced in science could simply be a reflection of the underlying misogyny of our society.
1 – Clark Blickenstaff*, J. (2005) ‘Women and science careers: Leaky pipeline or gender filter?’, Gender and Education, 17(4), pp. 369–386. doi: 10.1080/09540250500145072.
2 – Saraga, E. and Griffiths, D. 1981. “Biological inevitabilities or political choices? The future for girls in science”. In The missing half: girls and science education, Edited by: Kelly, A. 85–97. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
3 – Keller, E.F. (1987) ‘Reflections on gender and science’, American Journal of Physics, 55(3), p. 284. doi: 10.1119/1.15186.
4 – Barthelemy, R.S., McCormick, M. and Henderson, C. (2016b) ‘Gender discrimination in physics and astronomy: Graduate student experiences of sexism and gender microaggressions’, Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2). doi: 10.1103/physrevphyseducres.12.020119.
5 – Available at: http://www.biography.com/people/francis-bacon-9194632
6 – Smith, M.J. (ed.) (1999) Thinking through the environment: A reader: Classic and contemporary readings. London: Taylor & Francis.
7 – Sympathy for the devil? (2015) 14 June. Available at: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1728
8 – Gristock, J. (2016) Why aren’t there more women in science? The industry structure is sexist. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/31/women-science-industry-structure-sexist-courses-careers
9 – Muffitt, E. (2014) The ‘leaky pipeline’ of women in science Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10637941/The-leaky-pipeline-of-women-in-science.html
10 – Warrington, M. and Younger, M. 2000. The other side of the gender gap. Gender and Education, (40)(3): 493–508.
11 – Gonsalves, A.J. (2012) ‘“Physics and the girly girl—there is a contradiction somewhere”: Doctoral students’ positioning around discourses of gender and competence in physics’, Cultural Studies of Science Education, 9(2), pp. 503–521. doi: 10.1007/s11422-012-9447-6.