Women in Science

Ok, I did say things might get a little bit political, so here we go.  I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about the role of women in science, the opportunities available and the limitations we face.   I know a lot of successful female scientists, and they are fantastic role models, but I have also seen and overheard things that make it clear that women are not always viewed equally.  This has ranged from academics saying they wouldn’t want to hire female postdocs in case they go on maternity leave to the current furore over an academic complaining on facebook about the lack of attractive females at a recent conference.  It’s easy to try to pass these off as isolated incidents, but a recent study in PNAS suggests otherwise.  Academics were asked to rate job applications which had been randomly assigned male or female sounding names.  The researchers found that male and female academics consistently rated applications higher and suggested higher starting salaries for males applicants compared to females, even when the applications were identical.  This sort of hiring bias probably contributes to the differences we see in the science workforce.  According to a report by UKRC, women make up only 12.3% of people working in science, engineering and technology jobs and continue to earn less than their male counterparts, though the gaps are slowly shrinking.

For all the subtle discrimination that still exists though, things seem to be improving for female scientists and there are plenty of role models for those of us who are early in our careers.  Two days ago was Ada Lovelace Day, a day devoted to raising the profile of female scientists and sharing inspiring stories of women in science, maths, and technology.  I didn’t hear about it until after it happened, but I love the idea and will certainly be looking out for it next year.  At findingada.com they have a directory of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), inspiring stories, and more.  Some areas are still a bit sparse, but I hope it will continue to grow.  It’s a great way to promote how much women have contributed to science fields and will hopefully help to inspire a few more women to pursue science careers.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there was that dreadful video put out by the European Commission earlier this year that was meant to inspire more girls to study science.  In case you missed it in all its high-heeled, bubblegum-pink glory, you can still see it here (the original was removed due to the huge number of complaints about the patronising, stereotypical depiction of women).  Some said that it was a harmless video that may appeal to some girls, but I think it’s representative of a view that still lingers in society about what women like (pink! lipstick! shiny!) and what they should be (pretty, skinny, giggly).  It was a great idea to promote science to girls, but the execution as a huge let-down.  Subtle sexism strikes again…

So where does this leave us?  Well, I decided a long time ago that I wanted to be a scientist.  I’ll continue to work hard, and will hopefully gain the respect of my colleagues without any reference to my gender.  However, it’s clear that this might not be easy, and I think it’s important that all scientists (men and women) take a look at the evidence, critically assess how they view their students and colleagues, and try to root out any gender bias they may have.  We can also push the organisations where we work to look at their employment profiles and try to achieve a better gender balance (unions, organisations like the UKRC and programmes like Athena SWAN can all help with this).   I also think it’s important that girls considering science careers have role models.  I certainly wouldn’t have made it this far without inspiration!  As I said in my last post, I used to work in science communication, and I spent a lot of time going out to schools to promote science and research.  I hope to continue doing this sort of thing throughout my career, wherever it may lead me, and would encourage others to give it a try – it’s a lot of fun, can give you a different perspective on what you’re doing and you may just inspire the next Ada Lovelace (or Marie Curie, Caroline Herschel, Rosalind Franklin…).

The contributions women make in science fields are being recognised more now than ever before, and gender gaps are narrowing, but there is still room for improvement.  We can make it better, for ourselves and those who will be joining our ranks in the future.

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