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Is science sidelining women?

Written by Science

If I asked you to name a scientist, who would you say?

In light of a study conducted by Teach First, where just 2 female scientists were mentioned across 3 GCSE specifications compared to 40 males with concepts and theories named after them, there’s a good chance the person you were thinking of was male. 

While we all know the story of Newton’s apples, the lesser-known stories of female pioneers are barely touched upon in public consciousness. Rosalind Franklin, with her pivotal contribution to the structural understanding of DNA, Lise Meitner, the co-discoverer of nuclear fission and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who unveiled the truth behind radio pulsars, have undoubtedly fallen under the radar while their male counterparts triumphed. This was the case for Franklin and Bell Burnell, both of whom lost out on formal recognition when their male associates were awarded Nobel Prizes instead. 

Following a fraught history of inequality, sexism in science is an age-old phenomenon. With even Charles Darwin believing that women were intellectually inferior to men, and female fellows excluded from the Royal Society until 1945, female scientists have long had a tough time proving that their work is of equal value to male colleagues. 

It may seem as if such inequality is a problem rooted in the past, however, the shocking revelation that 50% of adults today are unable to name a female scientist dead or alive (aka half of everyone who reads this article), makes it clear that the gender imbalance in science is still in urgent need of addressing.  

But just how valuable is women’s contribution to science? Results from a recent study suggest that the most financially successful businesses are those with a diverse team, supporting the case for women in science as an intrinsic part of economic success. 

Despite the need for females in science, only 22% of STEM-based (science technology engineering & maths) careers are occupied by women, with even less (13%) operating at management level. 

There are numerous concerns relating to this lack of female engagement in science, one of which begins in childhood where young girls may be overshadowed by boys. According to Teach First-trained science teacher Sylvia Lim, ‘Girls can sometimes struggle a bit more with confidence because they’re more apprehensive about getting things wrong.’ Such self-doubt among even the brightest young females may compromise their attitude towards science, with one slip up enough to put them off forever. 

The problem lies not only in a female lack of enjoyment and confidence for science. Science all too often cultivates a hostile culture of discrimination and harassment, placing an added burden on female scientists where many are forced to leave the profession. 

With 59% of survey respondents saying that a lack of female role models is holding girls back in STEM subjects, new measures are being put in place to change this trend for good. With school initiatives to overcome stereotypes, increasing female representation in lessons and incentivising STEM teachers to inspire the next generation of girls, inequality in science is being challenged. 

Female scientists do exist, with far too many to list in a single article. Whether it’s fashion, maths or computing, the possibilities in science are endless. Across all subjects, challenging gender stereotypes is a vital step for allowing every individual to pursue their interests and talents. Without it, we risk forming a society where not only our economy suffers, but our happiness does too. 

Last modified: 24th February 2020

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