illustration by Sam Osborne
Just a few weeks ago the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prizes – arguably the highest accolade possible for a scientist – were announced.
Seven scientists were given awards (three for Physics, three for Chemistry and one for Medicine) but not a single one of them was female. Only 49 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women in the years 1901-2015. A total of 870 individuals have received one of the 573 awards handed out, which means women have only received a measly 5.6% of the glory. Only 18 of those have gone to scientists. (Incredibly, two of them belong to one woman – Marie Skłodowska-Curie, who scooped the Physics prize in 1903 – the first female laureate ever – and then made history again by becoming the first double winner with Chemistry in 1911, something achieved by only three others since then.)
There are a very specific set of reasons for this. The Nobel committee tends to award prizes for work that was carried out many years ago, after it has stood the test of time and avoided being disproven.
Back in the second half of the 20th Century (or even earlier) when much of this award-winning work first started, women were still actively being excluded from studying or working in STEM fields. If laureates must wait decades before their work is recognised then the pool of female researchers at the top of the waiting list is still incredibly small, and we may have to wait another decade before another woman makes the list.
Unfortunately, the committee explicitly refuses to give awards posthumously, denying some truly amazing women the recognition for their ground-breaking work that they were denied during their lifetimes (look up Rosalind Franklin and Lise Meitner to get you started).
However, these circumstances are almost unique to these awards and do not address the wider issue – why are so few women getting published in scientific journals?
Numbers have increased since the 1990s but have begun to plateau and barely increased in the past few years – in 2014 only 37% of papers in high-end medical journals had a woman as the principal author. The immediate assumption might be that there just aren’t that many women in science, blaming the lack of interest and enrolment at the base level of education.
While science and technology have historically been male-dominated fields, as soon as you look at the numbers you can see that things are changing. According to the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency 47% of first-year enrolments into science subjects at higher education level were female in 2014, and the previous year saw almost identical numbers. More recent data is not yet available but I don’t doubt that the trend continues. At university level, girls actually dominate certain subjects by a significant margin – biological science, medicine and veterinary studies in particular often see twice as many girls than boys.
The knee-jerk reaction of ‘we need to get more girls interested in science!’ which is exclaimed every time someone brings up the gender gap at a professional level has obviously had a positive effect over the years – but what if that wasn’t the problem in the first place? It’s clear that there are plenty of young girls out there with an interest in science, and judging from university numbers also a large number who wish to pursue it as a career, but the number that actually make it that far up the ladder is only a tiny proportion.
As a Chemistry student at the University of Bristol, the student cohort in my year is a rough 50-50 split, and I have seen a similar ratio between PhD students – but in my four years of study at what claims to be one of the best Chemistry departments in the country, I have only had three courses taught by women.
Only one of those women is a professor, and she only received that title after working in research for almost thirty years. It’s a similar story both nationally and globally – women are getting degrees and PhDs in STEM subjects but then just vanish off the face of the scientific community, resulting in an incredibly low number of female professors, research leaders and faculty members.
In the US, women make up less than 10% of all faculty members in Physics departments. This ‘drop-off’ point at the post-doctorate level is well known and has actually been studied, but it doesn’t require writing a paper for a medical journal to figure out why.
Unfortunately, but hardly surprisingly, the worlds of scientific research and industry are rampant with sexism. This can range from nationwide scandals, like Tim Hunt resigning his post at UCL after receiving huge amounts of backlash about his misogynistic comments about women working in labs, to far more subtle gender biases, such as scientists considering a job application with a male name to be far more competent than an identical one with a female name. There are still people out there who believe that men are just naturally more predetermined to be good at science or maths, or that women lack certain cognitive functions.
Sciences where women typically dominate, such as Biology and Psychology, are widely considered ‘softer’ and therefore less credible. Historically, computer science was initially pioneered by female programmers but it wasn’t until men started to join the field that it was deemed a ‘real science’.
Women’s contributions to a project are often undervalued or not even credited, and they are also much less likely to give themselves the credit they deserve, downplaying their own part but acknowledging the work of others. In 2009 when Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize for Medicine alongside Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, she made sure to credit those she had worked with and inspired her, many of them other women, when explaining her winning research. Szostak did not.
Personal anecdotes from friends further highlight the issue, which can rear its ugly head as early as the first year of university. A Biology student told me about a male professor who had a ‘type’ of PhD student he liked taking on – all were female, blonde and blue-eyed. A Marine Science graduate recalled one of her friends being completely ignored by her project supervisor in favour of his male students. A Chemistry student was literally told she was to blame for population decline (???) because she was ‘busy mixing chemicals instead of reproducing’. Sexual harassment or assault is distressingly common, especially between younger women and senior members of staff.
This makes it incredibly difficult for victims to come forward about what happened for fear of losing their job or university place, and if they do speak out, they are not always believed or supported by the heads of staff. A huge number of incidents are either never reported or quickly swept under the rug to preserve the shining reputation of the more esteemed staff member (and often of the organisation itself).
However, it doesn’t stop at sexist remarks in the workplace and creepy supervisors. The entire scientific community is structured in a way that actively excludes and disadvantages women.
When I took to social media to ask female friends if there was anything discouraging them from pursuing a science career after graduation, one of the most popular responses was related to maternity leave and job security.
Scientific research is rapid and fiercely competitive; it is a constant race to get your work out there before someone beats you to it, and there is a huge amount of pressure to constantly churn out research papers on an annual basis. Taking time out to have a family is not seen as a ‘pause’ in your career as in many other sectors, but actually more like a ‘rewind’. A huge amount of work is published globally each year and if you don’t constantly stay in the loop, it’s very easy to get left behind.
If you aren’t working on your research, it is far cheaper for the university or company you work for to simply close it down rather than wait for you to come back. As a result, loss of female researchers to maternity leave/childcare, even for a short period of time, is considered a ‘leaking pipeline’ of employees, which discourages employers from even taking women on in the first place.
A postgrad told me she’d overheard an academic member of staff saying they actively discriminate against taking on female researchers because ‘they’re bound to go off and have babies at some point, and it’s just a waste of time and money’. The most shocking thing about the story? The academic in question was also female.
The scientific community essentially puts women at a crossroads – they can have an illustrious and fruitful career in research, or they can have a family. Both is not advertised as an option. Even if they do return after having kids, many find that they are no longer given the same challenging opportunities or leadership roles as before. This is an implicit suggestion that they are no longer capable of keeping up, and a stigma not faced by new fathers in the same field. All of this, combined with sexist ‘lab culture’, a complete lack of institutional support and very little long-term job security, makes working in science a very unappealing career path for many women.
Another exceedingly common response from girls not planning on continuing in science was a lack of female role models. Chemists at my university have to wait until second year to see a woman standing at the front of the lecture hall. Engineers have to wait even longer. Female students are disheartened by the lack of female researchers and teachers to interact with, so do not progress into research or teaching…and so the vicious cycle spins on.
And until the scientific community and its overwhelmingly male authorities takes a good hard look at the problems within the system rather than outside of it, nothing is going to change. Over the years, focus has shifted away from helping and supporting women already in the field, perhaps a sign of reluctance to admit these problems still exist. We can cry ‘we need to get more girls into science!’ as much as we like but getting girls in isn’t the problem; it’s keeping them in.
Until we actually start pointing fingers at sexist practices within the community itself, the pyramid of female scientific success will continue to crumble not from the base, but from the middle.
Many thanks to all the lovely ladies of Facebook whose stories and feedback were used in this article.
Jams is a non-binary freelance illustrator and student studying Chemistry at the University of Bristol. Their life dreams include publishing their completed graphic novel and bringing dinosaurs back from extinction. They can be found on Tumblr here and here.