Women and Science: Is it a Career we Want?

The title is a bit misleading. I am definitely a woman, but I can see the cool side to being a scientist – not that you can only be one or the other. I’d love to discover a new species, or a new star (cos that’s what scientists do right?), I’m just not patient enough for hours in the lab or months in the field. I am not a physical scientist through choice, and herein lies my point.

There has been much discussion recently about gender equality and it’s become something of a hot topic in the department. Women in science was the focus of last week’s Grad School Seminar, I have had many conversations on twitter covering such debates, and we all had something to say about the It’s a Girl Thing video. My something to say about the European Commission’s attempt to get young girl’s interested in science is I’m not offended by it in the slightest. Bemused yes, but not offended.

Issues surfaced again at a conference I recently attended on Green Economics, and by this point I was starting to get quite bored of it. I think the fundamental flaw in their argument was failing to distinguish the global issues from the national issues (or the issues of any developed country). Globally, there are some serious and unacceptable problems of gender inequality and male domination. In the developed world, I think we have little to complain about.

I feel equal. Call me naive but I do not believe that being a woman restricts me from doing anything I want to do. As a teenager, I felt that science and maths were boring. I also felt that they were my worst subjects yet I got two A* GCSEs for science. So why didn’t I go into science? I don’t think it ever crossed my mind; I wanted glamour to be perfectly honest. I was exactly the teenager that It’s a Girl Thing was aimed at, and hey it could well have changed my mind, but then I could have ended up at uni doing a subject that wasn’t really ‘me’.

I don’t think we need to worry too much about getting more women into science. I do think better careers advice at school would be beneficial; to make young people aware of the range of opportunities out there, but you can’t force people to do something they don’t want to do. A wise man (with a PhD) once said Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Men and women are inherently different, so let’s celebrate those differences. Women who love science are already out there doing it; we have some great examples of passionate and capable women in our own department.

Moving up the career ladder is a different issue and in academia, as in all professions, women perhaps more than men have to make compromises. I don’t think we have fewer women in high places due to capability; it’s just intuitive that women tend to have children and tend to be the primary care givers.  This means either taking a career break, or at the very least making compromises at work such as reduced travel or shorter working hours. It seems obvious to me therefore that women are likely to accumulate less experience than men. Promotion should be based on merit not gender.

In many ways I find the women in science debate counterproductive. By making a fuss about it, we are drawing more attention to the divide between men and women rather than making room for equality. Perhaps I am so aggrieved with mention of the issue by the very fact that it implies women are physically restricted in their career choices, and I don’t believe they are. The first women’s college opened at Oxford in 1879 – the battle has been won, let’s stop whingeing and just get on with it.

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4 comments

  1. I really like the divide you’ve made between the problems experienced in the developed and developing world. No doubt, many would argue this is simply a matter of degree, and that inequality in all its forms is rife. Yet there are times when I have suggested that one of the best things we could do to alleviate poverty and bring population growth down a bit, is to provide sex education and contraception to women in the developing world, that people have been more than a little incensed. For me though, this is a stark reminder of the differing problems that you’ve drawn attention to. In the developing world, there is the basic issue of giving women control of their bodies. From there, we progress to liberation from subjugation, equality of power (e.g. voting rights), and then to equality in the workplace (this may be an over-simplification, but it’s meant to be illustrative). So perhaps addressing each of these matters specifically, rather than having ambiguous discussions which go from one end of the spectrum, may well help to highlight the particular nature of each of these issues. Then again, I’m a white male in the Western world, which too often seems to be equated with me not knowing what I’m talking about, despite being a part of a minority group myself by virtue of being gay.

    1. Yes I think women’s equality in the developed and third world countries are very different things. We need to take serious steps to slow down population growth and I think you’re completely right in saying that women’s education is a way to go about this – not just sex education but empowering women overall through education to strive for more in life and to be confident in themselves.

  2. I hope you don’t me respectfully disagreeing with you. I don’t think talking about the divide makes it any bigger or worse, just as not talking about racism doesn’t make racism suddenly disappear. And just because there aren’t physical (or even legal) barriers to women getting into STEM, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other social or cultural barriers for women who are genuinely interested in the sciences.

    I would highly recommend Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. It’s more about computer science than science science, but a lot of the same principles apply.

    1. Controlling the educational system and directing the youth into certain careers is the way our governments can make sure that there won’t be a lack of knowhow in the future. If there is no such control we will all end up jobless and without – say enough doctors. Therefore the governments must entice the youth into choosing career paths with a future. Obviously too much force or pressure is not good, but information about clever career choices will direct people in a clever direction. So the government has seen a lack of women in science and therefore informs girls of the breadth of choice they have. It’s really just an effort to make them understand a little more about science careers than finding new planets and species.

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