Science not yet ready for women?

In early 2010 the Royal Institution, the body that raises awareness of science and promotes its research in the United Kingdom, decided to make its director redundant, almost without giving her any notice. The director in question was Susan Greenfield (Baroness Greenfield), and when the decision was announced the suspicion in many people’s minds was that the move may have been connected with her gender and the public profile she had (to the great benefit of science, it would have to be said) managed to acquire.

The general suspicion that science is not quite ready for women continues. Research undertaken by the UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology (UKRC) has suggested that women are put off science, and that the image of those women who do make it there tends to be heavily influenced by stereotypical assumptions and prejudices.

A modern society cannot afford to harbour such views and prejudices. It is time to ensure that woman have an equal role and place in the world of science.

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16 Comments on “Science not yet ready for women?”

  1. don Says:

    It’s not the science, per se, of course. While there are (at least) two sides to every story, and without being privvy to either, I suspect that Baroness Greenfield encountered too many obstacles from yet another male-dominated institution. Like all Irish universities, the Royal Institution suffers from male domination at the top and upper-most levels of management. It’s not so much a case that women are put off science, it’s the management of science that’s the problem 9for her and for UK science). Until women such as the baroness are afforded dignity, respect, and authority, then science and the RI will not change. Of course, the same could be said for all women and society in general

  2. cormac Says:

    Ferdinand!! Those are two very different points. I have no idea what happened in the particular case of Baroness Greenfield, but as a representative of the Institute of Physics in Ireland and the UK, I can assure you that we (and we’re not all men) spend a great deal of time worrying about how to improve the gender balance in physics.

    I think your second paragraph is much closer to the mark. It is very hard to explain why so few girls take an interest in science, even in this day and age, and I’m sure stereotypes play a role. Another possibility might be the manner in which science is taught in school. In an era when girls outperform boys in the Leaving Cert, it’s astonishing that so many still steer clear of science. Of course, role models may palya role – but this was not a bar to women’s progress in other fields. Whatever the reason, I can assure you it is not coming from the scientific organisations..


    • Cormac, they are related points. There were suspicions that SG’s redundancy was connected with her gender.

      • Don Says:

        I agree with Ferdinand here. Again, I say, it’s not science, physics, etc, that is the substantive issue here. It’s the male domination aspect of the organisation that has the effect of shutting out all but a few of our most able women. Look beyond the science – look to gender prejudice. That’s the problem, and the solution. Having said that, I would not have counselled the baroness to resign her position – surely she knew that she had very influential and powerful public support to stick it out. As has often been said on such matters, women have to prove themselves ten times over to do the same job as a man…

      • Al Says:

        Are suspicions enough to generate a claim of existence?

        It rings of the UNICEF situation here in Ireland where something potentially similar has occured?

  3. kevin denny Says:

    It would be useful to know the extent to which this is a science problem. Do the numbers look very different in law, medicine, the civil service, politics? My guess is not.
    If thats true we need to look to more generic policies. Maybe more family friendly employers would help. Part of me thinks that success in organisations seems to require aggression and hence the premium on testosterone.
    Incidentally there was a really nice study by two economists, Goldin & Rouse, on how the introduction of “blind auditions” for orchestras lead to a large increase in the hiring of females (American Economic Review, 2000, 90, 715-741).

  4. John Carter Says:

    “It is time to ensure that woman have an equal role and place in the world of science.”

    But do we really know why they don’t?

    And do we really mean “science” here, or the science establishment? Lots of science occurs outside it you know.

  5. cormac Says:

    Actually, on mature reflection, I suppose it’s quite possible for science organizations to be chauvinist and yet be trying to encourage women into science at the same time!
    wouldn’t surprise me really..

  6. kevin denny Says:

    It would be useful to know the extent to which this is a science problem. Do the numbers look very different in law, medicine, the civil service, politics? My guess is not.
    If thats true we need to look to more generic policies. Maybe more family friendly employers would help. Part of me thinks that success in organisations seems to require aggression and hence the premium on testosterone.
    Incidentally there was a really nice study by two economists, Goldin & Rouse, on how the introduction of “blind auditions” for orchestras lead to a large increase in the hiring of females (American Economic Review, 2000, 90, 715-741).

    PS Really different Ferdinand? Most senior civil servants male, likewise judges, politicians…

  7. John Carter Says:

    “Lots of science occurs outside [the science establishment] you know.”

    and, judging by the above contributions, quite a lot
    that occurs within it isn’t science.

  8. Don Says:

    What a different world it would be if women were permitted to reach their full potential in the professions! This comment is not intended to be patronising at all – I sincerely believe that in addition to the unique skills, knowledge and experience that women have, many of them also view the world in a way that has the potential to make new and far reaching discoveries (in science and medicine, for example). Many of us can all name a view eminent women scientists who were publicly feted, but it’s still very a male dominated (in the perjorative sense) area. Some eminent women scientists never achieved the highest accolade in their area, despite being universally acknowledged as major contributors in their field of endeavour (see Rosalind Franklin and the remarkable DNA discovery controversy, as a case in point).


  9. A lot of “I think”s and opinions floating around here. Not a lot of science. I once attended a presentation by a female engineer about women in Engineering. She more or less said, “give up as very few women want to be engineers. It’s in their genetic make up. Not many are like me”. Of course, as a woman she could get away with saying that. But poor oul’ Larry Summers of Harvard could not get away with it. When he suggested that the reason that there were less women in Science was that they were less interested in it, there was such uproar that he had to resign. Let’s stop assuming we know the answer to this and get the necessary data to find out what it is. (And don’t give the scientists a hard time if they come up with results you don’t like)

    • Rachel Says:

      Brian, did the engineer whose presentation you attended have “scientific evidence” that a lack of interest in engineering is in the genetic “make-up” of women? That is quite a strong claim you know and quite a startling one. If the gene or genes for “interest in engineering ” have been identified and shown to be
      sex-linked, is this research documented somewhere?

  10. Anna Notaro Says:

    Physics seems to be an exception, at the moment four (Italian) women are at head of prestigious research institutes/projects: the Nuclear Physics Society, the Gran Sasso underground labs (the largest underground particle physics laboratory in the world), the NuclearPhysics European Collaboration Committee and Atlas (a particle physics experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN). One could almost say that matter(s) is in women’s hands!


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