Eureka Live: Women In Science
On the first Thursday of every month, The Times newspaper also includes the science magazine Eureka. In collaboration with The Wellcome Collection, The Times also hold Eureka Live events. On 4th November I attended the event that celebrated the top 100 most important people in British science and having perused over the list, it was evident from the concerns raised that I was not alone in feeling disconcert with the prominent lack of women selected (12 out of the 100).
With that notion eroding away at my thoughts, I was particularly drawn to the most recent Eureka Live event because this focussed on whether or not gender plays a role for those working in science. As a scientist, my interest in attending this event not only stemmed from the inner frustration that aspires to see change in this heavily male dominated field; it also stemmed from my belief that opportunities for both men and women should be equal and, most importantly – despite knowing of a number of successful women in science (past and present)- I was in search of redemption having had personal discouraging experiences of working for women of senior stature in the lab (pathologists excluded). Sadly, I insolently feel (and I write this with severe self-loathing, disappointment, frustration, concern and, no doubt, controversy) that their impulsive attitudes affected their decisions and judgements greatly as they varied depending on their emotional status rather than what made logical sense, unlike the men I have worked for. As a result of my experiences I have even doubted whether or not women make successful seniors
and I desperately want that to change because how can I expect others to believe in encouraging more women to take on senior roles, if I appear to not believe in it myself?
What’s going wrong?
I believe I’ve just been unlucky to have experienced such unfortunate portrayals of women in senior scientific roles (every woman is different afterall) and that these are in their minority (and believe me, this is what I continually tell myself because I believe women can be successful in any occupation, if physically possible). Eureka Live: Women in Science – my pen was at the ready.
The event was hosted by Hannah Devlin, a science correspondent for The Times, and she was joined by panelists Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, Keith Laws, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the University of Hertfordshire and Ottoline Leyser, Professor of Biology at the University of York and author of ‘Mothers in Science: 64 ways to have it all’.
fem·i·nism noun \ˈfe-mə-ˌni-zəm\ : the doctrine advocating social, political and all other rights of women equal to those of men.
Yes (despite my experiences) I most definitely support that – so what’s the situation in science?
What happens to all the women at the top?
Athene and Ottoline highlighted the issue with gender and science by firstly explaining that there are a great number of science undergraduates who are female but the general trend shows a significant dropout at every level of progression. Keith, however, suggested that this is dependent on certain science disciplines because there are a lot of successful women working in veterinary science. In my own field of biomedical science, there are far more women than men, however, most managerial roles are often taken by men – so where are all the women? Have they just chosen a different course, as Hannah did when she left being a scientist to become a science journalist?
Here follows a breakdown of some of the possible explanations that were discussed:
….most careers peak at the ages when women are most likely to have children
The decision to have a career break to have children seems the most obvious choice for explaining why so few women hold senior roles in science. Keith highlighted that the disadvantage faced by women in the scientific field was that most careers peak at the ages when they are most likely to have children. As a mother and a successful scientist, Athene strongly believes that it is far too simplistic an explanation to suggest that this is the only reason and I definitely have to agree with her on that. Ottoline, also a mother and successful scientist, explained it perfectly:
having children is not a gender issue, it’s a parent issue
….because physically having a child requires little of a mother’s time, it is the after care that is most demanding but then the responsibilities can be equally shared. There are, of course, additional cultural explanations that shouldn’t be overlooked here. Another attack on women’s choice to have children whilst working in science derives from the media proclaiming that women cannot have children and be successful. Ottoline and Athene both shared their similar experiences where they issued photographs of themselves for publications and in the final prints, their children had been cropped out of the shot.
What is “acceptable” for your gender, according to society?
For mathematics and physical sciences such as physics, Keith proposes the reason for fewer women relates to their ancillary verbal skills that make them more versatile, which provides additional career options; whereas men tend to have an exceptional mathematical ability and are not as articulate, therefore have no choice but to choose and remain in such a specialised job. Athene explained how such categorisation may be a result of social cues throughout childhood that send us in a particular direction. Hannah gave a good example, of a test in the 1970’s that asked parents to rank babies according to objective measurements such as strength and size. It was found that, despite there being no difference between the baby girls and boys as a whole, the majority had described the boys as strong and more aggressive than the girls and this showed that, even right from birth, differences are being judged based on gender. This could have a serious impact on the future of these babies in their decision-making, attitudes and concept of what society deems as “acceptable” for their gender. Athene added these influences are simply cultural and could be removed. Keith actually questioned why physics doesn’t seem attractive to many women, yet it does to men, even though it is the same information that is being presented to both sexes. Ottoline believed it is because the image of a physicist is a geek in a white coat with funny hair, which could put most girls off.
The talk and the Q&A session looked at the competitiveness of science, particularly in research, where it is thought that men are more likely to take risks and be more aggressive to achieve their goals. I have read J. Craig Venter’s autobiography A Life Decoded, in which he explained that:
“The ability to deal with pressure….[has] been linked to a gene on the X-chromosome responsible for the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) [the gene] particularly related to sensation seeking and the regulation of messenger chemicals (such as dopamine and serotonin)”.
From this, my guess is that women have no reason why they can’t be just as capable of dealing with pressure in such a competitive field. This point was also very interesting because Ottoline believed competitiveness should be thought of as a positive aim that encourages people to be the best they can be, rather than it be a negative burden where the focus is to be better than others. She also had the view that men are too scared to step away from the competition, whereas it seems admissible for women. There’s also the issue of having the confidence to deal with the risks and pressures of such a competitive field (you can read Athene’s post about confidence here). Athene added that many scientists sustain the wrong values such as their h-index value, how many Nature publications they currently have or how big their lab is, when the concerns really should be whether or not the science is actually any good.
Keith believes we’re facing a paradox with the “are men and women
different?” question. He says women are confident that there are no crucial differences between men and women, yet [Edit: women also argue that men run science as] such a competitive arena that is fuelled by testosterone. With that, Keith suggests that
women should either admit there are differences or deny them and take on masculine characteristics.
Athene commented that just because she was different from Keith that did not suggest that women are necessarily different from men. Keith also suggested that maybe there should be a description of a successful scientist to which we could correlate whom best fits in majority, men or women. Quite rightly, Ottoline explained there are many ways to be a successful scientist so a single description could never exist and even if there were differences between the two sexes, this diversity should be encouraged because that’s what is required to get the best out of an organisation. British psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen with his systemising and empathising theory, has investigated (and discovered) some interesting differences between men and women at the neurological level.
Our brain can naturally categorise people so that we view them in a certain way without any tangible facts, which is wrong. Hannah added that in the world there may not be a single description of a successful scientist, however, in our heads there probably is because we naturally stereotype people and groups or communities. Athene agreed on this using the example of how most of us, when we see only a surname with the title “Dr”, assume it’s a man. For those curious about this, Hannah drew our attention to the Harvard Implicit Association Test, which she has taken and with surprising results. Ottoline made an excellent point as she explained that society continues to hold a patriarchal idea of how organisations are supposed to be and how we still experience the idea of stereotypical roles. Another great point she made showed that it seems acceptable for women to aspire to “male roles”, whereas vice versa it seems not. Annoyingly, as Hannah spoke of inequality in pay, when the question of a pay increase arises, women are viewed as being aggressive whereas men are simply seen as getting their money’s worth. Charming.
So what are my thoughts now?
I believe my problem has been that I have little experience of working for a creditable female senior who I had confidence in in the way they managed our laboratory and I am wrong to typecast all women as incapable of holding such a role, just through my experiences. From this event I have had such an in-depth insight into other people’s ideas of why there is such a deficiency in women becoming successful in science, which make my initial thoughts look quite superficial now. My main concern, however, relates to why we (including myself) are so assiduous at boosting the field with an influx of women because this has to be more than for the feeling of complacency – surely the focus should just be on the quality of the science. When we consider same-gender parents adopting a child, the worries do not – and should not – lie with gender, but whether or not they are good parents for the child. In answer to Keith’s question asking why physics is less attractive to women, I believe this is because the discipline is already home to so many men, the information that is actually being presented is “Hello ladies. Look at this male dominated field. Fancy your chances?” Maybe the stigma of such gender dominated sciences has been created from the vicious cycle of there already being so many men, which puts women off each year when even more men are applying. I do believe that this can change; there’s no reason why we should see any gender specific disciplines in science, women should never lack confidence in taking risks and dealing with competition and, like Athene mentioned in the Q&A session, children just need improved careers advice to actually see that a science degree opens a lot of doors and there is more on offer than most people realise.