Women in Science

Once a profession dominated by males, women are now rising through the ranks in the world of science and technology. But what are the reasons why women have been underrepresented in science for so long ? There are claims of bias; women leaving to have children and lack of female role models. Men have been shown to publish far more scientific papers than women, who only account for less than 30% of worldwide authorship, depending on the field. There are 803 male Nobel laureates compared to 44 females. With the rise of Women in Science and Technology events and organisations encouraging girls to pursue science and technology are things starting to change in the world of science.

There are differing reasons why women are not as prominent in science. Studies have found that females are more likely to suffer from low confidence on their course or be dissatisfied by the support they receive, with only 27% of tenured professors being female. Females in STEM careers also earn 82% of what their male counterparts do in America, even less in Europe. A big problem found was that many drop out at earlier stages and do not pursue postgraduate education. In a survey in 2006 of chemistry PhD students by the Royal Society of Chemistry in London, more than 70% of first-year female students said that they planned a career in research, however by their third year, only 37% still wanted to follow that.

Feeling so self-conscious left me unwilling to ask questions and make mistakes – both of which you need to do in order to be a good scientist.

Whilst The University of Nottingham is a pioneer for promoting women in science, being one of only four universities to be awarded a Silver Athena Scientific Women’s Advancement Network (SWAN) Award which celebrates the success of women in science, engineering and technology, there are certain subjects that are still vastly underrepresented by females. Around 40% of UK mathematics undergraduates are women, however at higher academic stages this dramatically drops. Physics is another subject that is low on female students making up only 26% of it’s intake. Impact spoke to Royal Society University Research Fellow and Physics lecturer Dr Clare Burrage about working in such a male dominated field: “I think the biggest problem for me has been that I stand out. I dress differently to my male colleagues because my body is a different shape. My voice higher pitched than most of my colleagues. All of the little things that mark you out as being different from the norm attract attention. Sometimes it’s good to stand out, but never feeling able to blend in with the crowd made me quite self-conscious, especially in the early stages of my career. Feeling so self-conscious left me unwilling to ask questions and make mistakes – both of which you need to do in order to be a good scientist.”

“Things are definitely changing. Not very long ago women were still facing open and active discrimination. That’s not the case anymore, and whilst a handful of people have said stupid things to me over the course of my career, they are vastly outnumbered by a huge number of kind and supportive colleagues. Departments, universities and funding agencies are all now starting to recognise and address the particular issues faced by women. But this change is happening slowly, and the number of women in physics still remains very low.”

You can see by how these projects are over-funded that there’s a real interest in female-positive projects.

The University of Nottingham’s Computer Science course has a ratio of 13% females to 87% males. UoN Computer Science student Paula Clerkin has organised a Women in Tech event to help inspire females to pursue careers in a severely underrepresented field. One of the speakers at the event, Paola Kathuria, co-founder of one of the first internet companies Limitless and now Limitless Innovations, spoke of her experience as a female in technology “Women are as able as men in technology; their skill and ability isn’t a factor. There’s certainly sexism in technology but I’m not sure it’s any different to sexism in other industries. A talk at the GeekGirl Meetup Conference described a scenario that was similar to my experiences 25 years ago. Dom DeGuzman, a Twilio Engineer, had flown in from San Francisco to talk about ‘Breaking the BroCode’. She described how her Senior in pair programming would impatiently take the keyboard off her and code himself. That’s the complete opposite of what pair programming is about.”

“In recognition of the bias in science, people are looking to give children the tools to choose a future in science and technology. Hello Ruby is just fantastic. It’s a book to teach children programming concepts. However, the main character is a girl, Ruby. I think that this kind of female role model for young girls is the way to go. And then there are women-run campaigns for projects creating strong female role models. You can see by how these projects are over-funded that there’s a real interest in female-positive projects.” When asked about what advice she had for women “Do it. If you’re thinking about it, you probably already like it and are good at it. Do what you love. Be true to yourself.”
There are now organisations such as WISE (Women in to Science and Engineering) set up to increase gender balance and promote women in STEM jobs, aiming to increase the number of women in STEM careers from the current 13% to 30% in 2020. They provide funding, internships, careers and mentoring for women in science. Their aim is to also promote young women of school and university age to be inspired to pursue a STEM career. The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme recognises the achievements and successes of women in science by awarding fellowships and grants to help fund further research. The programme has recognised over 1,3000 women in over 106 countries.

With an increase in strong female role models, more women studying science at university and better opportunities available it is hoped that women will become better represented in the world of science and technology in the future. Dr Burrage gave some final advice for women thinking of pursuing a career in science “Go for it! Life is too short not to do the things you enjoy, and a career in science can be incredibly exciting and rewarding. I always feel incredibly lucky that I get to study the Universe for a living! More practically, I would suggest talking to as many people in the fields you’re interested in as you can.”

Jessica Hewitt-Dean

You can follow Impact on Facebook and Twitter

One Comment
  • Yasmine Mahmoudieh
    26 November 2014 at 06:21
    Leave a Reply

    Great article.. I can only underline the importance to get girls interésted into science at an early stage. That is why we launched the first coding classes for children from the age of 6 last yesr at google campus in London Shoreditch and extended them to other locations. You can see that girls from the age of 6 are as interested as boys. Through this very positive experience as a young child, where it makes absolutely no difference to a boy, they get introduced in a very natural way. We need to engage the youngest in order to inspire them to go into STEM subjects later on.
    I am 100% convinced that we would not face those dropouts of STEM subjects of girls if they started early enough and therefore, can master for example, programming when they are young and their brains are like sponges taking all in so quickly.

  • Leave a Reply