Think of a stereotypical scientist: what do you see? When presented with this question, a lot of people will think of a man. That’s because, both culturally and in practice, science still seems to be more influenced by men. But many organisations, including Diamond, are working towards
redressing the balance and demonstrate that science is most certainly not just a man’s game.
According to data from Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) in 2015, less than 15% of people currently working in STEM careers are women. What’s more, schoolgirls are significantly more likely to rate themselves less competent in maths and science subjects, even when their abilities surpass those of their male peers. This issue runs far deeper than the sciences, but notwithstanding genuine advances in the past few decades, the science sector remains an area of gender discrepancy.
So why are the sciences struggling to attract and retain women? It may be that girls are being thrown off science from an early age. For young children, science is sometimes characterised as a male speciality. Chemistry sets and space-themed birthday parties are generally the reserve of little boys; girls are steered towards dolls and tea parties. A clothing line recently came into controversy after printing a line of children’s clothes reading ‘Pretty like Mommy’ and ‘Smart like Daddy’. This more general cultural bias likely has a deleterious impact on young women’s breadth of interests and formative career ambitions.
The conspicuous lack of female role models in science may also contribute to girls’ stilted involvement in some science subjects, particularly at school age. Whilst there are the giants of history – like Marie Curie: the single mother famous for her pioneering research into radiation, and Rosalind Franklin, whose work with X-ray diffraction led to the discovery of the double helix – the sciences, like many academic disciplines, have historically been dominated by men.
The absence of historical role models is mirrored by continued low numbers of women in modern science. Women at PhD level may perceive STEM careers as unfriendly to women, given the relatively low number of successful female scientists. In recent years, the absence of female scientists could be recognised as a self-perpetuating cycle: there are few women in science because there are few women in science.
There is also the pressure of societal expectation to contend with. Science is a very demanding career path. Scientists work long hours and experience a lot of pressure to publish results regularly. Whilst caring responsibilities continue to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women, it will always be harder for female scientists to compete.
Any discussion about women in science has to consider the possibility that this conspicuous absence may be in part due to genuine, if subconscious, discrimination against women. Research from Yale University found that a science graduate’s chances of being hired for a lab manager position were dramatically reduced simply by changing the name on the CV from ‘John’ to ‘Jennifer’. Jennifer was also found, on average, to be offered a starting salary of $4000 less.