This week I am going to discuss women in science. While some people feel that this is not an issue, the fact remains that there is a proven disparity between men and women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (STEM).
As an example of some of the problems encountered by female scientists, let’s take two pioneering female scientists. One received no attention for the work that she did, while the other received misguided attention.
History tells a story (or two)
Rosalind Franklin was a chemist who performed X-ray diffraction studies (using X-rays to determine molecular structures based on how atoms diffract the beams). She took a position at Kings College in London where she worked using X-ray diffraction to determine the structure of DNA.
In 1953 she determined that DNA can form helices. Now, at the same time, James Watson and Francis Crick (I’m sure you have all heard about them) were working on a theoretical structure of DNA. At a meeting, they were shown unpublished results of Rosalind’s experiments by her supervisor Maurice Wilkins, which led them to conclude and publish their now famous double helix structure of DNA. All without acknowledgement of the role that Rosalind played in their discovery.
Watson, Crick and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962, still with no acknowledgement of Rosalind’s contribution. And, in 1968, Wilkins published an unfavourable presentation of Franklin in his memoir (Double Helix), labelling her as uncooperative, antagonistic and as someone who refused to share her data, despite objections from those who had known and worked with her. She died in 1958 from ovarian cancer. It was not until recent history that her contribution to the discovery of the DNA double helix was made known and acknowledged.
Marie Curie was famously awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1903, only after her husband and other recipient, Henri Becquerel, insisted she be awarded the prize or they would refuse. This made her the first woman to be awarded the prize. This is despite being unable to attend university in her country of birth, Poland, due to the fact that at the time, women were not permitted.
When her husband (Pierre) died in an accident, Marie was offered Pierre’s position as a Professor of Physics at the University de la Sorbonne. Again, this was a first.
In 1911 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium. Again, another first. The first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in two different categories. She is in fact, the only person to do this! However, despite this, she was rejected by the French Academy of Sciences to become a member. This was mostly due to rising xenophobia in France, but also because she was a woman. Despite her contribution to science and medicine, much of the focus on Marie was because of a relationship she had with a former (married) student. This led to unwelcome visitors to her home, newspaper articles demanding she be removed from France and that she lose her Nobel Prize. The hypocrisy of this is that she was not the only researcher and Nobel laureate at the time who had relationships that would have been deemed inappropriate (although she was a widow), and much of the outrage could be contributed to the fact that she was a woman.
In recent times (2015) there was the now infamous comments made by the Nobel laureate, Tim Hunt, who commented that he did not hire women because they were always “falling in love, and would cry if you criticised them”. This led to the equally infamous and hilarious #distractinglysexy Twitter responses.
Science is losing out
So, how exactly are women faring in STEM?
Let’s take a look at the number of women in science at the moment. Overall, women make up just 28.4% of the world’s scientists. This number is higher at the Bachelors level, but decreases the more we move up the career ladder.
By region, women in science make up:
- 36.8% for Arab States
- 39.9% for Central and Eastern Europe
- 47.1% for Central Asia
- 22.6% for East Asia and the Pacific
- 44.3% for Latin America and the Caribbean
- 32.0% for North America and Western Europe
- 18.9% for South and West Asia
- 30.0% for Sub Saharan Africa.
These numbers range for the regions from:
- 62% in Bolivia to 26.5% for Honduras
- 52.8% Latvia to 26% France
- 43.7% South Africa to 5.8% Guinea
- 85.5% Myanmar to 4% Saudi Arabia
- 52% for New Zealand and 28% in Australia
It has been acknowledged by the UNESCO project, SAGA (STEM and Gender Gap Advancement), that the statistics on women in science are currently not taken into account or used in policy making, and that there is a lack of data and indicators, which can obstruct the design, monitoring and evaluation of policies aimed at gender equality.
Let’s take, for instance, the data for France, which is one of the poorest faring developed countries. Women make up 58% of people educated at the Bachelor level. This decreases to 47% percent at the PhD level until we reach the 26% that are career researchers.
So why is there a decline? Studies of women in science have revealed that women are less likely to stay if they feel that there is no mentorship, women leading by example or career development. Surprisingly, males and females without children tend to leave at a similar rate. This difference can also be due to a lack of opportunities and the gender pay gap.
A ground breaking study investigated gender bias when hiring male and female researchers. The investigators submitted the CVs of a male and female applicant for a university position. However it was in fact the same CV. The results showed that the male applicant was rated as more competent and hireable than the female applicant, despite it being the exact same application. The male applicant was also offered a higher starting salary and more career mentoring.
Career or family? You choose.
Female scientists who have children, or are considering having children, tend to leave at twice the rate to their counterparts who do not have children. So does it always come back to choosing a family over career? While it comes down to career development as well as the pay gap, family has an influence.
Studies into the attitudes to women who return from maternity leave have shown that workplaces often treat the working mothers differently, with the misconception that they have become ‘soft’ or that their priorities are no longer to their job and career, and therefore their performance will be less than that of their childless counterparts.
Also, there are financial penalties for career breaks. Women have to list on their CVs and funding applications why there is a ‘break i.e. the time they took for maternity leave. While some funding sources now offer the option to ‘pause’ a grant while maternity leave is taken, meaning that they do not lose the time given for the funding, others will not, forcing some women to return to work earlier. This can also be hampered by the lack of support and facilities for new mothers in regards to breast feeding. In many institutions there has been the move to provide adequate rooms or private locations for a breastfeeding mother to express breast milk. In other places, where breastfeeding rates are low and can be regarded with distaste, no such facilities or opportunities exist. And for those that say women will lose time in the lab because they have to express often, how many people have colleagues who take multiple cigarette breaks a day?
A final thought.
The take home message? There is a gender gap in STEM, and as long as unequal pay, career support and an unchanging cultural attitude persists, the number of women who stay in science will not increase and valuable brain drain will permeate the sciences.
“Marie Curie.” Famous Scientists. famousscientists.org. 8 Sep. 2014. Web. 7/6/2016
Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2012;109(41):16474-16479. doi:10.1073/pnas.1211286109.