Viewpoint: Everyone must fight sexism in science

Woman in laboratory Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Females are discouraged from careers in science, says Dr Zecharia

Nobel prize winner Sir Tim Hunt has caused controversy after his comments about the "trouble with girls" in the laboratory. This reflects deeper lying problems for women in the world of science, says Dr Anna Zecharia.

So should we just ignore an old-fashioned old man? My answer is a resounding "No". We don't need to demonise Sir Tim Hunt but if we shrug off his views as a generational quirk we are not looking closely enough and we fail to acknowledge how deeply these attitudes are embedded in our workplaces and how they are still holding women back.

Yes, when he was born women had barely won the right to vote and, yes, thankfully a lot has changed since then. But we are still grappling with a world where gender roles are blurring and these are important conversations.

Only 13% of jobs in the science and engineering sector are held by women. This is either because they are not "getting in" - as is the case with subjects like physics or careers in engineering.

Or it's because they are not "getting on". Even in areas like the life sciences, where entry and early career stages see roughly equal numbers of men and women, the so-called leaky pipeline kicks in. On average, roughly 17% of professors in the sciences are female.

By not speaking up we risk slowing progress further. Children as young as seven (and possibly younger) hold ideas about which careers are for men and which are for women.

Both the Wellcome Trust and the Aspires project at King's College London have found that girls and young women are less likely to see a career in the sciences as being "for me".

Parents are steering their daughters away from careers in engineering, with only 3% encouraging it as a career compared to 12% for their sons. The Institute of Physics talks explicitly about gender stereotypes in their workshops with young women - they need to because the proportion of girls taking A-level physics has remained stagnant at fewer than 20% for the past 20 years or more.

They are also piloting whole school approaches to gender equality because it's clear that teachers' attitudes may be part of the problem too.

One 14-year-old female student told me: "When my science teacher said there was no point trying for a higher grade [in science], I wanted to give up. I mean, if a teacher says you're not good enough, they must know - they're a teacher."

Falling through gaps

It's not hard to see why the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU: they can't even get in the door.

But why, when they get in the door, do women leave careers in areas like the life sciences in disproportionate numbers?

Firstly, let's be clear - it's not a new question. Recognition of gender - and wider - inequality in the sciences is why the Royal Society has an active Equality and Diversity programme. It's why we have the Athena SWAN equality charter - and the acknowledgement that women are currently more likely to take career breaks (and be disadvantaged by them) is the reason behind many returners' schemes such as The Daphne Jackson Trust.

The sector is trying hard to address this issue but women are still falling through the gaps.

In my discussions with ScienceGrrl members, particularly around last year's Women in Scientific Careers' Select Committee inquiry, it was clear that the reasons for this are varied - from worries about short-term contracts and the need to relocate, to those I will expand on below - and it's well worth reading the report for a deeper insight.

There was some suggestion of conscious discrimination; one woman told me she had "heard a number of supervisors (both male and female) suggest that they are less willing to hire female researchers of reproductive age because they are worried about the disruption to their research programme", and I heard occasional stories about harassment too.

Most of the time it was more subtle than that. For example, some women were uncertain of their maternity rights, and afraid to ask. Others were worried about the impact a career break for childcare would have on their career but didn't have any solid information about their options.

One frustrated researcher asked me: "Why don't we talk about having a family like it's a normal thing to do?"

Organisations could do more to communicate policies and options to early/mid-career researchers - and perhaps more pertinently, to their bosses. It's also not a women's issue. Men choose to have families too, and moves towards greater flexibility are good for everyone.

Career bottleneck

It's not just about having children. A key factor in progressing in a scientific career, indeed in any career, is having people who support you on the way. Considering the impact sponsorship by a senior scientist can have on a rising career, we need to do more to recognise it as part of a 360-view on what makes a successful senior scientist.

Currently, the personality of your supervisor can have a huge effect - especially if they hire and nurture only in their own image. Combined with observations that women are less likely to put themselves forward for promotion, and to take part in conferences that could help advance their careers, a bottleneck can develop.

But why would supervisors make biased choices, or women feel less confident? This is where I want to come back to Sir Tim's comments. We live in a gendered world and we can't look at the sciences in isolation.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The vast majority of those in science and engineering are male

Cordelia Fine's book Delusions of Gender makes for excellent reading on this. We perpetuate stereotypes starting with the toys we market to children, and we rarely look back.

For example, one professor told me that she never noticed an issue until she became more senior: "When I had to assert my authority, I was seen as bossy and felt people liked me less - I felt penalised for not acting like 'a good girl'."

Do women cry more? I'm not sure about that, but it's certainly less socially acceptable for men to show their emotions in this way. Narrow stereotypes about masculinity are no good for boys and men either.

Lack of opportunity

The problem with stereotypes is that they are a kind of "cognitive shortcut". Relying on them to save time when making decisions can lead to unconscious bias - making split second judgements about an individual based on what you think you know about "their group".

This has been shown to be an issue time and time again - from the study showing identical CVs were ranked lower, and challenged more, when they were thought to come from a woman; to showing that when auditions are held behind a screen, gender bias in orchestras disappeared.

Because women are not just under-represented in science and engineering - FTSE 100 boards are 23.5% female, and 22.8% of our MPs were female in 2010.

A jump in this year's election mean that this number now stands at 28.9%, which some have put down to active measures such as Labour's use of all-female shortlists. We need to start talking about gender equality across all sectors, and stamping out stereotypes wherever we see and hear them.

Gender stereotypes can affect confidence, and career choices. Girls perform worse in maths tests when made to focus on their gender before taking the test.

This is known as "stereotype threat" - the phenomenon that the anxiety caused by expecting to do badly means that you actually do.

It's not that girls are "choosing" not to take physics or become engineers. Much in the same way that many of the women who leave the academic path, or don't make it to the board, aren't "choosing" not to play their part in upping the number of senior women beyond that ~20% watermark.

It's not real choice, because low expectations, limiting stereotypes and inflexible career paths mean there is a lack of genuine opportunity. Girls and women are being kept out of rewarding careers.

From the public reaction to his speech, it's clear that it is becoming less and less socially acceptable to make comments like Sir Tim's. This is a good thing. But just because it isn't spoken out loud doesn't mean stereotypes will disappear.

Zero tolerance for explicit sexism of any flavour is the low hanging fruit. Language matters. But it's the unconscious bias and its implications that we need to keep talking about, and challenging.

Dr Anna Zecharia is director of ScienceGrrl (@annazecharia) and lead author on Through Both Eyes: The case for a gender lens in STEM.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics

More on this story