Women and Science: An Impossible Mix?

Einstein is an obvious choice for “picturing a scientist”

Picture a scientist: I bet you thought of a man! Worse still, can you even name a famous female scientist? Don’t worry if you can’t, neither can around 90% of 18–24 year olds.

The battle of the sexes seems to be an ongoing and heated debate cropping up everywhere, but nowhere is it more prominent than in the world of science. Men have outscored women on science tests for the past three decades. At schools the highest science scores, from GCSE and A-level, are three times more likely to be boys than girls and only 38% of university students studying science are females. Furthermore, later in life males dominate science related industries, with only 30% of women graduating from science subjects pursuing employment in a related field. But is this really surprising when women earn, on average, 30% less than men in equivalent science careers?

So why is this the case? Does it really date back to the times when women would stay in the cave making meals and telling social stories while men would be out making tools and creating the wheel? This is how some evolutionary psychologists would attribute women’s preference and proficiency in English-based subjects compared to their male counterparts. However, this theory offers no route to bridging the science gender gap, so psychologists (mainly women!) everywhere are crying out for new explanations.

One explanation is that the school science learning environment favours boys over girls. Girls prefer social aspects of learning, such as talking through problems, working in groups, using down to earth examples and seeing everyday applications of theories and equations. This can be very difficult in a physics lesson concentrating on electromagnetic spectrum or radioactivity. For example, girls often perform best in life sciences and biology which have the most obvious practical applications. Yet, are we just being over stereotypical here?

Stereotyping has the biggest impact on the gender gap in science: as science, engineering and technology are often thought of as masculine subjects. Research has shown parents and teachers alike have lower expectations of the daughters and female students and because of this girls often get fewer opportunities for a career in science. The majority of school children are aware of this stereotype, some as young as eight. Furthermore, whereas boys may perform better under these conditions, when females are aware of this stereotype they under-perform on science tests compared to girls who were unaware of the stereotype. This effect is known as stereotype threat and is possibly due to anxiety. This stereotype is especially damaging in science professions where women are frequently in the minority: women who view a science-environment as male-dominated feel psychologically vulnerable and are less likely to engage in discussion. Practically, if this situation occurred repeatedly in a workplace it is likely the female would not succeed on this career path. This is especially worrying as girls who suffer from sexism in science underachieve and grow into women who avoid science related jobs.

The implications of such stereotyping must be becoming apparent: it is almost a self-fulfilling prophesy that a girl who hears and believes women aren’t as gifted or successful in science usually grow into women who avoid science careers. This in turn prompts the next generation to grow up with the same stereotyping. The vicious circle of low female representation in science and the prevailing stereotype implies women will never close the gender employment gap in science careers.

So, calling all female students studying science in Durham, that’s all 1,699 of you: you can succeed! It’s up to our generation to get into these “elusive male-dominated science fields” and prove we can break this stereotype once and for all. And for the other 2,303 males currently studying science here: be afraid, be very afraid!

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