Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Women in Science – where are we now?

This year on “Of Schemes and Memes” we plan to provide more editotial content in the form of overview and discussion pieces that cover key scientific events and issues. We’ll start off with a very topical overview of women in science which aims both to round up some recent blog posts and reflect on some archive material. If there is something you would like us to cover in a future post, please email your suggestions to network@nature.com.

Although women have played a part in science since the earliest civilisations, little recognition was given to the significance of the female contribution until the early 20th century. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie winning her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium, an award of particular importance as it represented a public and international recognition of a woman in science. This blog post will consider the difficulties that female scientists face today, highlighting groups, organisations and events that are all helping to narrow the gender gap in the field.

From Marie Curie to role model

As a role model for modern female scientists, Marie Curie provides an impressive example of a woman who seemed to do it all; she was able to make huge strides in her research whilst managing a family. As the icing on the cake, her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, was inspired to follow in her footsteps and was also awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. marie.bmp Throughout her pioneering career, Curie blazed a trail for women, breaking down some of the barriers that impeded their progress in science. Her advice has just as much relevance for women today as it did 100 years ago:

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Although Curie didn’t see women flock to the sciences in her lifetime, significant progress was made by each of the succeeding generations. Many of the other hurdles women faced tumbled during World War 2 when, out of necessity, women were recruited into traditionally male-only positions, including those that relied on scientific and technological abilities. The post-war generation was then influenced by the feminist movement, which resulted in further acceptance of women in previously male-dominated fields. Nowadays, women play a high-profile role in society, and take on prominent positions in both arts and sciences. In 2009 the arts world saw the appointment of Carol-Ann Duffy as the UK’s first woman Poet Laureate and the appointment of Baroness Greenfield as director of the Royal Institution, although her term was short lived and ended with an enforced redundancy, which was described as the “triumph of the grey hairs over the miniskirts.”

Women in Science- The stereotypes

This year also marks MIT’s 150th anniversary celebration and the events have raised the profile of Ellen Swallow Richards, MIT’s first female graduate and faculty member. She was instrumental in opening the Institute’s first laboratory for women in 1876 and tirelessly promoted scientific education for women throughout her career. An all female panel gathered at MIT this week to discuss women in science, including how women can manage a career as well as family life. Mixed comments were voiced. ‘One of the ways I dealt with a career and a family is to get rid of everything else,’ said Hazel Sive, a biology professor and member of the Whitehead Institute. Fallon Lin, a recent grad working at Novartis, complained ’often women can be seen as emotional or worse,’ whereas in men, the same behaviour is seen as ‘assertive and powerful.’

Beyond MIT, women’s progress also seems mixed. A report last week in the correspondence page of Nature discusses how women still win fewer scholarly awards than men, possibly because many awards panels have no female members and few have female chairs. The nomination letters these panels receive for females tend to contain stereotypical adjectives such as ‘cooperative’ and ‘dependable’ and mention personal details. Male applications, in contrast tend to use language that fosters male images, such as ‘decisive’ or ‘confident’. This month FemaleScience Professor’s blog saw a similar language bias in an excerpt from a letter of recommendation written for a female faculty candidate; the male who wrote the letter saw fit to compare the candidate only to other females.

Times are changing- Groups, Events and Awards

In spite of the fact that difficulties remain even in modern times, increasing numbers of women are moving into science and the mood of the times seems to be on their side. Girls in the UK are consistently out-performing boys in the classroom, and organisations such as WISE are encouraging them to broaden their horizons and cast off the idea that science is a male-dominated field. Further support has come from international companies; L’Oreal-UNESCO’s For Women in Science, for example, is an international programme which recognises and rewards exceptional women across the globe for their achievements in science.

Many other events that aim to support female scientists are being held worldwide, providing a platform where they can share their experiences. The fifth She’s Geeky event, took place this week in San Francisco, and was discussed in Joanna Scott’s blog,. The event was initiated by women who recognised the need for a gathering space where women who self-identify as ‘geeky’ could meet in person to support, educate, and simply chat with each other. The UKRC, another organisation supporting females, functions as the UK Government’s lead advisor on the under-representation of women in science, engineering and technology. Each year, they celebrate women in these sectors with The UKRC Women of Outstanding Achievement Award. Nominations are open until midnight tonight (January 31st), so if you know a female scientist who has been an inspiration to others, please make sure you nominate them.

Female Scientists Online

Awards like this are hugely encouraging, but women remain underrepresented when it comes to the prize with the largest public awareness. To date, only 40 women have won Nobel prizes even though 840 have been presented, and no woman was awarded a prize in 2010. Despite this apparent lack of progress, women in the sciences do have a greater public voice, as the online world is helping to amplify their volume. The blogosphere has become a magnet for women on the sciences, as we can see from these long lists of female science bloggers.

But even online, progress has not been even. Just this month, Karen Vancampenhout composed an interesting blog post on Nature Network called Stereotyped?, in which she explores the problems facing female scientists. narrowing.bmp Dr. Kathryn Clancy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois last week wrote a post in which she considered The women scienceblogging revolution, which contains links to any recent blog post that discuss women in science. The battle for equality, however, continues even in the blogosphere, as Jennifer Rohn discussed last year on Mind the Gap, where she noted that no blogging network comes close to an even male:female ratio.

Even the ScienceOnline 2011 conference held in North Carolina this month, where more than 50% of the attendees were female, still saw them under-representing on panels & top blog lists. There was a panel discussion on the ‘Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name,’ where one female attendee protested, ‘We are all very, very tired of making a point on a blog, on twitter, or in a meeting, being ignored, having a man make the same point, then having that man get all the credit. Very tired.’ We have to find ways to overcome this, and Christie Wilcox, another prominent science writer/blogger, has used her latest post on sexism to try to tackle these problems and provide some ideas on how to narrow the gender gap.

In the media

Television is another powerful media outlet for debate about the sciences, but it probably comes as no surprise that females are also under-represented here as well. In November 2010, Alom Shaha, a Guardian blogger and science communicator, asked, where is the female Brian Cox? He pointed out that ‘Girls are crying out for a female scientific role model’. Efforts to change this are being put into place with help from the UKRC, and you can nominate female candidates here.

What kind of media attention do female scientists currently receive? Alice Bell, a Science Communication Lecturer at Imperial College and high profile blogger used a post comically titled Does my Brain Look Big in this? to discuss the representation of female scientists in the press. She described results based on a scientific study that found more media attention is given to female scientists’ appearance compared to male scientists;

She looks like an off-duty Bond girl, but she’s actually a physicist […] given the chance, plenty of viewers would happily experiment with [her]

Sheril Kirshenbaum, a research scientist and prominent blogger, agrees this kind of attention is misguided. In one of her blog posts, Under The Microscope: Feminism, Scientists and Sexiness, she said, “What I know for sure is that we need to find more ways to acknowledge women who speak up, take a nontraditional path, defy expectations, and contribute to society in and out of science. And there are better ways to do so than commentary on our physical assets.”

How far have we come?

Last week saw a highly publicised suspension of two British male Sky TV sporting pundits, who were punished for their sexist jibes against a female football linesman. This highlights how we can view the profile of women, not just in the scientific community but generally in the world of work, as a question of the pessimist versus the optimist. Should we be angry that such out-dated, discriminatory attitudes about women still persist? Or, alternatively, should we be delighted by the overwhelming outcry against these dinosaurian attitudes? How close are we to closing the Gender Gap?

Do let us know your thoughts on women in science in the comments. Links to, and comments about, other posts that we’ve missed due to space constraints are very welcome.


  1. Report this comment

    Linda Lin said:

     Looking forward to more editorial posts! Great that women in science is the first one.

    I like how celebratory the post starts off, before spilling over into the gender gap that’s also an issue in blogging. We’ve come so far, and yet we still fall short from the ideal 50/50 gender ratio.

    At least, overall. I think for some fields, the balance is in favour of women. (e.g. Vet Science or pharmacy, but this is based on what I’d heard thru the grapevine).

    It’d be interesting to see social science studies on this. i.e. ones that survey female students, postdocs, PIs etc. asking what their career and family goals are, and their views on the gender gap. I’ve known many women who settle for being assistants and technicians in order to stay near a spouse or prepare for a family. They don’t see this as being unfair. The gender issue is also a two way street sometimes. Many male friends I’ve had complain about familial expectations for them to enter into high powered careers, when what they really want is to be the house-husband. 

    Going outside of science a bit, women are still under represented in politics. At best, of the total MPs in Parliament, women only make up 20%. So, I gather men still dominate in deciding things for most of their female compatriots.

  2. Report this comment

    Linda Lin said:

    Man that sucks. Thanks for the links! glad the UKRCentre is going to try to stay open. On the side, there are few women in engineering and physics. sheez. for some reason, i thought it would get better too.12% of engineers are women in the UK ~ i found it mildly funny how that percentage hasn’t changed in 25 years. it’s promising that other fields are up in numbers of female students, every year i feel like I’m seeing more women biologists at the undergrad-postdoc levels. hopefully the trend will continue. it’s puzzling why there’s such a discrepancy between fields. 

  3. Report this comment

    Linda Lin said:

     oops misconstrued that statement, only 12% of students studying a particular electrical engineering course were women. according to the UKRcentre link you’ve put up, only a meager 7% of engineers in the UK are women 🙁

  4. Report this comment

    Veronica Akle said:

    One of the biggest solutions  to help close the sex gap is the presence of female in authority positions. Sadly, only women understand the needs of other women and can lead the way to success. I am a graduate student, and had my baby at year 3 of the PhD. My PI, a prominent female scientist, urged me to take the time I needed and facilitated everything around the transition to being a new mom + everything else. She gave me as a gift a playpen for my son to be with me for a few hours a day, and is 100% flexible about my work hours. As a consequence, I was able to continue my projects as soon as weeks after labor, but also to be close to my baby, and my PhD has not suffered at all. I would have never have such healthy environment if my boss were a male. I actually received bad comments from many of them.

  5. Report this comment

    Laura Wheeler said:

    @Linda, thanks for drawing these statistics to our attention- they are shockingly low, only 7% of engineers in the UK are women! 

    Thanks Veronica, you set a great example and show that is is possible to have a family as well as a scientific career. 

    You all may be interested to read a recent article in Nature News, Science gender gap probed.  It reveals that overt sexism is no longer the norm, but societal barriers still remain for women in science.

  6. Report this comment

    Lou Woodley said:

    In case anyone missed it, Alice Bell wrote an article in yesterday’s Guardian about the issues holding back women in academia, based on a recent study. One interesting point it raised was whether it would ever be possible for universities to offer part-time or job-share scientific positions. Anyone got any thoughts or experience of this?

  7. Report this comment

    Laura Wheeler said:

    Thanks Lou for the link to Alice Bell’s article.  It does raise an interesting point and I am keen to hear people’s opinions on this??

    There is also a New Women in Science forum discussion topic on Scitable (nature education).  Their latest poll is asking, "Is child care the most important deterrent to the rise of women into full professor status?"

  8. Report this comment

    Laura Wheeler said:

    I have also been alerted to these 2 surveys of research careers by Jan Anderson, UEA and national. The comments are worth a read.

    If anyone else has any relevant articles, links, data, or generally an opinion you want to express, please do share them in this thread.

  9. Report this comment

    Laura Wheeler said:

    It’s time to name names!

    The 100th International Women’s Day will be on the 8th March 2011.  So if you want to name">http://bit.ly/dPXTtp">name your favourite female scientists & engineers make sure you do it soon. 

  10. Report this comment

    Laura Wheeler said:

    Thanks Katharine for the link, an interesting read for sure.  To give everyone a quick summary, in this article Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute discusses an investigation carried about by scholars Cecil and Williams who concluded that when it comes to job interviews, hiring, funding, and publishing, women are treated as well as men and sometimes better.  What is more they tried to demonstrate that the real problem most women scientists confront is the challenge of combining motherhood with a high-powered science career.  I am interested to hear what other peoples opinions are on this conclusion?

  11. Report this comment

    Laura Wheeler said:

    It may be worth noting that today the Guardian released a list of the top 100 women in science and medicine.  It can be found here.

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