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January 17, 2011

Women of science, do you know your place?

Why there are so few women in science? Or to be more precise, why are there so few women in the physical sciences, and so few at the top of any field?

While the situation is nowhere near as bad as it used to be, backward attitudes toward female scientists remain. As an undergraduate not long ago, it was just accepted that one physics tutor viewed women as inferior at the subject. Later, working at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, Cern, I was frequently mistaken for someone who might like to do the photocopying.

At a packed evening at the Wellcome Collection on 13 January, hosted by the Times Eureka magazine (and ex-Research Fortnight) reporter Hannah Devlin, three professors attempted to dissect the problem.

After wading through a quagmire of statistics, what it seemed to boil down to was, do women naturally do things differently and so are less inclined to study some areas of science? Or is there is a dearth of women because society pushes them elsewhere?

According to Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, social cues have a lot to answer for, with parents and toys having an often unseen influence. Overt discrimination against women also remains, she added, with promotion panels viewing men as assertive but women as aggressive, and rating the credentials of men as better than women with identical CVs.

Meanwhile biology professor Ottoline Leyser suggested that research’s competitive system of metrics is in some way biased towards traditionally male traits. An obsession with the quantifiable is unable to capture more traditionally female characteristics, that both men and women can have, and which might be a huge research advantage, she suggested.

The only male panel member, Keith Laws, professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the University of Hertfordshire, floated the idea that men, being more predominant at the extreme end of what’s been called the systematising brain (a much better name than the “male brain”), might have fewer options other than to go into physical science fields than those women who can both systematise and empathise.

The problem that I saw was really how little evidence we have on which to base efforts to increase the numbers of women in science. According to Laws, the clearest differences between male and female brains we know is that men are more likely to be dyslexic or autistic, while women suffer more from Alzheimer’s.

Even if there were fundamental differences between the skills of the two sexes, would a female-run science establishment produce less understanding, technology and human progress than the current system? Nobody knows because it’s never been tried. 

Meanwhile, the question whether cultural cues are to blame is difficult to accurately test, although we can say that male-female divisions are not universal - countries such as Argentina and Italy, have nearly equal numbers of men and women studying physics.

And finally is the leaky pipeline across all research – such that according to the European Commission’s 2009 She figures just 7 per cent of women in EU academia are at professor level, compared to 18 per cent of men – something that can be tackled? Or will the fact that women physically bear children forever prevent them reaching the top in larger numbers?

The point here should be that if we are missing out on such a gigantic resource that is half the population, for both science and equality’s sake we should try and answer some of these questions. We can roll out endless anecdotes and statistics, but a better idea would be to look at what’s behind the present situation and if anything can be done.

That’s exactly what groups such as the UK Resource Centre for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the European Platform of Women Scientists have attempted to do. And in the last 18 months, both have lost their funding.

The quiet acceptance of this from both the general scientific community and policymakers suggests that those at the top believe the situation is either irresolvable or acceptable. Sentiments that I doubt were shared by the swathes of  mainly young and female science-enthusiasts streaming out of the Wellcome Collection last week.


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At the basis of the scientific method is a methodology that is innately biased towards traditionally "male" qualities. Reason, logic and observable traits are the only qualities that are even acknowledged. This age old attitude is a detriment to science in general. Emotions are just as "real" as "thoughts." As a culture it is time to expand our consciousness and our scientific method. www.killingmother.blogspot.com.

In 1972/3 I undertook the first serious study of UK women in academic (but not medical)science - reported some while later in Social Studies of Science (1983, Vol 12, No 1).

Whilst the reviewers insisted, because I hadn't had the resources to study a couple of hundred men to compare with the women, that I couldn't claim any 'difference', I think it highly unlikely that only one third of comparable men were fathers, and only two thirds married - before we even got to other possible factors.

A striking number of the respondents had (often male) parental role models in science, and there were only tiny numbers of women physicists!

Almost all survey respondents thought / demonstrated in their situations there was what we might now call institutional sexism.

So yes, there may well be psychological differences / preferences in play, but there are (or at least were) an awful lot of social ones as well.

The issue hasn't, as we all know, gone away, and in that respect I do think the human perceptual issues are critical - not least in the way that science is conducted and communicated (if it is) to others.

Hilary Burrage

And that, Kathleen, is why there aren't more women in science...


I'm intrigued by Keith Laws' suggestion. In his view, the problem isn't a lack of opportunity for women, it's rather that a lot of men aren't good for anything else.

If true, this turns everything upside down, no?

I think it has something to do with what Gladwell was talking about in "Blink" when describing how orchestras are overcoming their bias that women were to be considered inferior musicians,

Athene Donald has been talking about this over on her own blog at the Occam's Typewriter blog network.


It is important to separate out the two separate strands of why girls at school are put off the physical sciences, and why there is a leaky pipeline thereafter. The causes are not necessarily the same. There are many things that can be done to raise awareness of people's unconscious bias (men as well as women)- the kind of thing which leads to identical CV's being read differently for men and women, and for which there is much hard evidence. These things can substantially improve the chances of women being encouraged to stay on in science.

As Austin says, I wrote about the Eureka event on my own blog http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2011/01/17/blushes-and-bluster/ but have also written a variety of other posts there on related subjects.

Additionally, the loss of funding for organisations such as UKRC should certainly be deplored. Nevertheless, we should not just throw up our hands. There are plenty of fairly cheap actions that can be taken that can help to improve the working environment in HEI SET departments - for everyone, but particularly for women. I wrote an article describing various local (Cambridge University) and national (Athena Forum http://www.athenaforum.org.uk/ which Ottoline Leyser and I both serve on) initiatives that can be done with very modest funds (though these funds themselves are not guaranteed). This article can also be found through my blog http://www.athenaforum.org.uk/

"...with promotion panels viewing men as assertive but women as aggressive..."

This really does ring home, and not only with promotion pannels! Glad to know that it was not my imagination playing tricks with me since starting grad school or something.

In my opinion, women are still the inferior sex.Like what you've written, you were mistaken as a woman good for photocopying and all. But with the kind of society we have right now that allows equal opportunity, I have to say that we can all have the place in this world. The society is still wide for both men and women work hand on hand.

Thank you Curtis Johnson Realty for making me a better person. Finally I feel compassion for estate agents - at least the female half in Arizona.

If only Google had better page rank algorithms people like you wouldn't feel the need to pollute our blog with your spammish ravings, and the world would be a better place.

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