Women in science: invisible?

Mad scientists - they're always men

If you’re asked to ‘picture a scientist’, you’ll probably see someone a bit like Albert Einstein, wearing a lab-coat with crazy hair. A perfect example is Doc Brown from Back to the Future – he’s a bit mad, a bit old, and he’s a man.

This week the Royal Society has reported that 88% of 18-24 year-olds could not name a female scientist. I hope 100% of the women (and men!) were embarrassed by that (Rosalind Franklin, anyone?). But why is our image of ‘a scientist’ so old-fashioned?

It’s probably got a lot to do with the fact that ‘science’ is a slow process – it takes a while to work out who the really big cheeses are. Women are still catching up in this field (as in most others), so they haven’t had as long to prove their worth. For example, only 15 women have won Nobel Prizes for science, compared to hundreds of men.

And much as I love Back to the Future, the movies don’t really help. I wracked my brains to think of a cool female scientist and horrifyingly the first one who sprang to mind was James Bond’s glamourous assistant Dr Christmas Jones from The World is Not Enough (cringe – although she was a female physicist so at least she was bucking one trend). Luckily after a bit of thought I came up with Ellie Arroway in Contact (a woman representing mankind – hurrah!).

Real-life female scientists like Susan Greenfield would argue that women like her, who don’t fit the mould of a ‘traditional scientist’, suffer for it. But at least she’s memorable.

It’s also true that women have the same problems making a mark in science as in any other career – taking time out to have children and look after them won’t help you get promoted. Scientists often work incredibly hard and at very unsocial hours – not a great job description for someone who wants to be a mother.

But the curse of the nerd is also in here somewhere. It’s still more ‘feminine’ to be good at art or languages than it is to be good at science or maths. I spent a short time teaching science at a girls’ school, and one student told me that she was really good at science but still didn’t like it. I just couldn’t work this out until I realised she was probably making a considered choice not to be a nerd.

Luckily the Royal Society’s survey also came out with the encouraging news that parents see scientists as good role models for their children – 20% picked ‘Nobel-prize winning scientist’ as their favourite out of a choice of six (the others were a lawyer, athlete, pop star, chef or doctor). Although if they want a female Nobel-prize winner the available pool is rather small and partly dead…

Even better, 95% of people asked by the Royal Society think men and women are equally well suited to being scientists. I don’t think this view is quite as widespread as the number suggests, but every little helps – the stereotypes are the first hurdle on the road towards female domination! (oops… I meant equality, of course).

In the meantime we’ll have to work a bit harder to seek out that rare creature, the female scientist role model. The Royal Society can step in here once again with a very inspiring list of British women. I like Mary Somerville, who was the second woman to present a paper at the Royal Society, lived to be 91, and has a (formerly women’s) college named after her at Oxford.

Hopefully in a hundred years we won’t even need to ask if anyone can name of a female scientist.  Instead we’ll be growing babies in vats so maternity leave won’t be an issue, or, even more outlandishly, perhaps gender stereotypes will be a thing of the past. Roll on the future!

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