……and no its nothing to do with if you fall in love with them, if they fall in love with you or if they cry as unfortunately remarked by Novel laureate Tim Hunt.
The problem is how little progress is being made by women in science careers. Last week as those on parental leave frequently do, I walked around the park with a friend, pushing our buggies and discussing post maternity life*. This friend, an exceptionally talented scientist achieved first degree honors in her degree, went on to complete a PhD and to work as a post doc at a leading UK university. She will not be returning to work when her maternity leave ends. As with many in similar situations this is due to long working hours, perilous short term academic contracts and the importance of keeping up the publication list. A review by the Science and Technology Committee researching the uptake of women in STEM careers criticised the structures that keep women from top posts, citing this a a bigger issue than uptake of STEM at school level. So what really are the issues with women in science and what can be done?
Problem 1: Women are underepresented
The main issue with this is that without women in top posts, the role models so desperately needed do not exist in good enough numbers. In physics the number of female role models is critically low and with five times boys male students taking physics A level this is unlikely to change any time soon.
My role model at sixth form college – Rosalind Franklin who was denied the Nobel prize for her vital role in the discovery of the structure of DNA
However even with the small numbers, the influence of women in science is still too briefly advertised. Many people have been following Tim Peake’s trip into space. Some media have referred to him as the first Briton in space despite the fact that Helen Sharma had beaten him to that title 25 years previously.
In a recent interview with the Guardian Helen reflects that her low profile was due in part to how she was treated as a woman ‘I’m a scientist, but I found myself in interviews being asked where I bought my clothes. Irrelevant. And I always felt I had to be photo-ready‘.
Charities such as ‘Speakers in Schools‘ provide opportunities for speakers to go into schools. Having used them (you get one speaker a year) they are really influential for our students. Money is needed to set up something similar with one clear goal – getting women engineers, scientists and mathematicians into every school to meet all students. Scientists are busy people and without the structures and funding in place it is unlikely that they will be able to reach out to all students in the country (which should be an expectation).
Problem 2: Women in the curriculum are underrepresented
Recently, GCSE specifications have become far more traditional, with a focus on the history of science and famous experiences of the past. Whilst this is a good move as it focuses on the importance of scientific inquiry, far more could have been made of women here and an opportunity was lost. Rosalind Franklin and Marie Curie make an appearance but that’s pretty much it. One of the focuses of the new specifications is the discovery of the atom, with many male scientists expected to be studied but lacking any mention of Maria Mayer who came up with the first formalised structure of the atom at the nuclear level. Why Mendel but not Barbara McClintock?
The curriculum must be relevant to both genders and whilst the curriculum is the easiest way to ensure this happens in every school we at the teacher level can have a big impact on our classes here. We can discuss these women anyway and we can widen the implications of scientific advances to discuss a variety of areas to engage all. But when we’re busy this can be one of the first things to drop and thus a girls experience of science can vary massively from teacher to teacher.
Problem 3: Academia is not women friendly
Academia is biased towards the traditional male career, inflexible to career breaks, part time working and children and until this changes there will be more famous male scientists. Progress here is pitiful. See here for a good survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The survey in essence summaries that women suffer many issues making progress in their careers exceptionally difficult due to their gender. This is why Time Hunt’s terrible remark made such ripples within the community, whether said in jest or not. Universitys have a moral and financial imperative to lead the way forward here, but I’m unaware of any successful strategies as yet.
Changing such gender stereotypes is a multi generational issue which must be addressed but is one that teachers can have a really positive impact.
* I’m on maternity leave, all posts written with baby in tow and mainly written on the phone!