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23/07/2014

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Are women changing science?

Emphasise similarities

Uta Frith resists bias

I am not sure, but I would rather say ‘no’. This is because I would find it hugely liberating if we could forget about gender when talking about careers in science. Instead, let’s consider the question: Is science changing attitudes to women?

Uta Frith resists bias

I am not sure, but I would rather say ‘no’. This is because I would find it hugely liberating if we could forget about gender when talking about careers in science. Instead, let’s consider the question: Is science changing attitudes to women?

My answer here is a cautiously optimistic ‘yes’. Science is a phenomenon that can shape attitudes and beliefs as strongly as religion and political ideologies do. We rightly depend on science to free us from our superstitions, and to point out the fallacy of many fondly held beliefs. Gender stereotypes are a case in point. I believe that science can challenge and, eventually, perhaps even abolish them.

But strangely, at present many scientists, men and women, seem to be only aiding and abetting them. This is understandable: there is a social advantage to categorising each other into kinds of people, because it allows you to know instantly where your place is in society, and to whom you are affiliated. But we are not only kinds of people. If we forget that we are also individuals, we remain prisoners of prejudice.

Tempting stereotypes

Prejudice is bad from most points of view, but it gives you a tempting short-cut which allows you to avoid thinking deeply. So when I am asked the question ‘Are women changing science?’ my laid-back mind instantly serves  up the common belief that, compared to men, women have more empathy, are more modest, more talkative and less competitive. A quick answer would let these common beliefs take over, especially if they make a nice story that makes women look oh so cooperative. But writing this, I can afford the time to reflect. I can ask whether these beliefs are true and hypothesise that they are simply a bias that systematically distorts the truth. 

Following normal scientific practice, I have decided to go against this particular bias. I am taking delight in constantly finding men who are more emotional, gossipy, and spatially challenged than many women I know, and who hate to be confrontational. I can also find the converse. For instance, I know about myself that I am much less empathic and much more aggressive than I ever let on.

Stereotypes are very powerful and make us conform to them. But we can see through them and science can help us do so. I propose that we should emphasise similarities between male and female scientists far more than differences.

How I learned to love the human resources department

Mary Collins sees the value of rules

Academics hate rules; they particularly hate rules written by other people. So I was very resistant, when I was a new research team leader, to any kind of instructions about how to recruit PhD students or post-docs.

Mary Collins sees the value of rules

Academics hate rules; they particularly hate rules written by other people. So I was very resistant, when I was a new research team leader, to any kind of instructions about how to recruit PhD students or post-docs.

A letter came from the human resources department saying that I would have to attend an interview training course. After the intense embarrassment of watching myself on video, I realised that my own insecurity meant I spent the whole interview talking, in an attempt to persuade the person to come. Take home message: don’t be afraid of asking the interviewee to explain any answer you don’t understand. It works in seminars too.

Ten years later I was head of a small university department. The human resources department arranged training for the annual promotion process from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer to Reader to Professor.  I thought this was totally pointless. I was managing less than ten academic staff and only one of them had asked to be promoted. Another revelation: you need to look at the CVs of all staff at each grade and think who is ready for promotion. Self selection favours the confident with time to pursue negotiations.

Small changes, big effects

Now I’m excited to be working with UCL’s human resources department, and Baroness Warwick, a member of UCL Council, as UCL’s Gender Equality Champion. We are aiming for small changes with big effects. The first one is ‘core business in core hours’.  We would like all essential meetings to be held between 9am and 5pm, maybe even between 10am and 4pm. This should help everyone plan their life: parents, party goers, athletes or those who are just bad in the morning, like me. Another job is to assess the impact of the introduction of student fees and various bursary proposals on the gender balance of UCL’s student applications and intake. This is complicated, probably impossible to predict, but interesting.

Scientific research is a spontaneous and creative process, which requires individual talent, and does not follow rules. However, I do think that people engaged in research need fair treatment as employees and also training in how to be fair and effective managers. There, I’m talking like a member of the human resources department.

Stress the positive

Carol Robinson shuns depressing tales

If the face of science is changing, and we would all like to believe that it is, why is it taking so long? It is now 100 years since Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize in chemistry.  As a mother of two children, and a largely self-taught chemist, I might have expected this eminent role model to inspire women to take up academic research. Why is this not the case?

Carol Robinson shuns depressing tales

If the face of science is changing, and we would all like to believe that it is, why is it taking so long? It is now 100 years since Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize in chemistry.  As a mother of two children, and a largely self-taught chemist, I might have expected this eminent role model to inspire women to take up academic research. Why is this not the case?

In recent years, initiatives have been introduced to highlight women scientists. I confess however that I am always a little disappointed when the associated press releases, even in the 21st century, headline with such titles as ‘Mother wins prize’ or ‘Woman wins top science prize’. Only when such awards are announced headlining the science behind the award will we know that gender is no long the issue.

But I would still like to think that we are changing the face of science. My research team in chemistry contains at least half women, many of whom go on to academic positions.  It’s not just that women work and think differently to men, but they are also often highly collaborative, making lasting friendships that extend beyond the duration of the project.  Since these elements should and do contribute to a successful research atmosphere, how do we achieve this more widely? The biggest challenge remains in trying to persuade women to stay on at higher levels.

Pick out the perks

Numbers at the top need to increase. This cannot be achieved by women in these positions recounting tales of demoralization, poor rewards and unrelenting competition.  We need to stress the enormous benefits of a career in science.

For me, these include the academic and personal freedom that come from being able to work the hours I choose on the projects that I find both fascinating and totally engrossing. When coupled with the academic family that I have nurtured throughout my scientific career, the opportunity to travel the world and present at international conferences, and the many close friendships I have formed, I can paint a very rosy picture.

These very positive aspects of a career in science need to be more widely appreciated.  Then I believe women will be drawn to academic research and will populate science at all levels. Women will then have changed the face of science, not just for the benefit of future women, but hopefully for all.

Uta Frith
Uta Frith is at Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London
Professor Mary Collins
Professor Mary Collins is Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences at University College London
Professor Carol V Robinson
Professor Carol V Robinson is Royal Society Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oxford
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