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What's the Deal with Women in Science?

The topic of women in science is not an easy one to tackle, and it is hard to know which angle to approach it from. Am I furiously criticising the institutions that have been established solely for men with lab coats and loud voices? Am I happily pointing out the progress that has been made over the past century or so in giving women more equal opportunity, and finish with an optimistic comment about continuing onwards and upwards? Or do I conclude that patriarchal ideas are too far ingrained in scientific fields and society as a whole to ever shift, and we should all just give up and let women’s achievements be trampled into the dust? It’s hard to say.

Let’s start with some statistics. As of 2017, only one in four IT graduates were women, and fewer than one in ten engineering graduates were women. In Australia in 2016, only 16% of the science, technology, engineering and maths qualified workforce were women. And here’s one to sink in – just 7% of engineers in Australia are female.

Why is this? It’s a hefty question. Some say that women’s brains are simply not designed for scientific fields. In 2005, Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University at the time, suggested that women lack “intrinsic aptitude” in science and maths.  A Google engineer was fired in 2017 for posting online claims that women’s biology affected their ability to perform in scientific fields. A British psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen, wrote in his book, The Essential Difference that boys are designed to focus on maths and understanding systems while girls are programmed to focus on people and feelings (he claims that boys have “systematizing brains”, whereas girls have “empathizing brains”).

Of course there is no actual scientific evidence to support this. Neuroscientists have found few differences in children’s brains beyond the larger volume of boys’ brains and the earlier completion of girls’ brain growth, neither of which is known to relate to learning. Even the widely held belief that boys are better at maths and science than girls is proving to be false, with psychology professor Janet Hyde, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, having strong US data that shows no meaningful differences in maths performances among seven million girls and boys in grades 2 through 12.

Perhaps it is societal expectations then, that contribute to the lack of women in scientific fields. Take the ordeal that scientist Rosalind Franklin faced for example. Franklin was responsible for “Photo 51”; the first photo of the double helix structure of DNA. Her colleague, Wilkins, disclosed her findings to scientists Watson and Crick without her permission or knowledge. This theory of the double helix structure was then published in 1953, and Crick and Watson received a Nobel Prize in 1963, taking credit for the work of a woman without giving her apt credit or recognition. Perhaps the reason her accomplishments could be so easily overlooked was because of the ingrained belief that women are less able to excel in science.

These gender roles are ingrained from a young age – girls play with dolls, and boys play with trucks. Perhaps this expectation contributes on a subconscious level towards the lack of females in scientific fields. I personally have seen girls in both primary and high school acting less intelligent than I knew they were in front of boys, so as to seem not “too smart”, and I wish I could say that I am exempt from ever doing such a thing myself, but I can not.

Rosalind Franklin, image from mentalfloss.com

It cannot be ignored however, that progress has been made since the time of Rosalind Franklin and “Photo 51”. While at the time, this glossing over a woman’s achievements would not have been particularly scandalous, I like to imagine that if the same event were to happen in 2018 it would be a source of significant controversy. But let’s hope that it doesn’t happen again. There have been organisations established to promote and celebrate women in scientific fields, including Women in STEMM Australia, which is designed to connect women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine). Many nationwide universities offer scholarships to women deciding to pursue scientific degrees, including RMIT, the University of Sydney, Macquarie University, and the Australian National University. Even big brand companies such as L’OREAL award yearly scholarships to early career female scientists. While the lack of gender equality in scientific fields is still an issue, and is by no means even close to being resolved, it is now being recognised as an issue that requires proactive action, and not just an accepted part of society.

So how to conclude this article? I generally consider myself an optimistic person, so I would like to believe that in twenty, fifty, one hundred years, there will be no gender inequality within scientific fields. I’m hopeful that, if given the same opportunities and encouragement as men, women will be recognised as capable and celebrated members of the science industry. There is still a long way to come, no doubt, but looking back at the progress that has been made even in the last fifty years gives me hope, and I think that optimism and proactivity are the keys to ensuring that women gain the credit and respect they deserve within scientific fields.


Rose Forrest

Rosie shares a name with the website, is passionate about writing, and loves a good grilled cheese sandwich.