Science: Is it a girl thing?

Last week I was forwarded a link to a, now withdrawn, advert from the European Commission. The link came from a friend with a wry sense of humour and when I first watched the clip I automatically assumed it was a tongue-in-cheek social commentary aimed at rubbing ‘feminist types’ up the wrong way. To me it seemed to play on a negative female stereotype (the fashion-conscious airhead), accentuating how this attitude does not fit with the otherwise serious, male oriented, world of science. The women in the advert were all immaculately preened and shown dancing around in short skirts and high heels, whilst the only legitimate looking scientist was a male sporting a lab coat and staring studiously down a microscope (see the clip below). It was later I realised that, far from being a cheeky misogynist jibe, this was an actual advert produced by the European Commission aimed towards encouraging young women to study science.


It seems, after extensive market research, the European Commission decided this was the best way to foster an interest in science amongst young girls. I assume their research showed that a large proportion of young women are more interested in fashion, beauty and music than differential equations and scientific method. Therefore, they ‘logically’ deduced that: to encourage more women into scientific careers, they had to show how glamourous and sexy this career choice can be. On the surface this makes sense: if you want to market a product (a scientific career) you have to make that product appeal to your target demographic (young women). However, it is not too hard for me, a female scientist, to see how this approach is short-sighted.

The life scientific is one of massive contradiction. Most people only know the romanticised/glamorised view of science as seen on TV: white coats, test tubes and Brian Cox staring knowingly into the middle distance. This view of science is easy to fall in love with. However, look beyond the inspirational sound-bites and you will find the true heart of science; the scientists. Very few of us are your stereotype ‘super genius’ and, as with any worker, we struggle on a day to day basis with insecurity, doubt and frustration but the one thing I believe we all share is an unwavering curiosity and determination, since without this we would undoubtedly fall to the pressures of our field. This curiosity and determination is the key to becoming a successful scientist and something the European Commission’s marketing ignores. Therefore, although the campaign may encourage more young women to study science, if these women enter the field believing a scientific career to be no more than a glamourous asset they can flaunt with their girlfriends over a late lunch, the outcome will undoubtedly be some rather disillusioned women and a number of ineffectual scientists.

That said, although I disagree with the their approach, I cannot deny that there is a lack of women in the higher levels of academia, indeed this is true for the higher echelons of many careers. This is undoubtedly a problem which must be addressed. However, I believe that before we stand a chance of readdressing the balance we must first uncover where the problem actually lies.

As a postgraduate student in the biological sciences, I don’t see a large divide between the number of male and female students in my field and level of study. However, there are undoubtedly fewer women holding higher academic positions (e.g. professor-ships) in this field. Conversely an area where you can see a vast male/female divide, starting as early as A-level, is in the physical sciences. A (male) friend of mine studied physics at university and often recants how there were so few women in his department that they had to organise socials together with the psychology department to ensure a good male/female balance.

statistics from the UKRC and the Athena SWAN charter, in the period spanning 2007-2009
statistics from the UKRC and the Athena SWAN charter, in the period spanning 2007-2009


This raises two questions: firstly, what is standing in the way of women achieving higher academic positions and secondly why do fewer women choose to study the physical sciences and maths?

The first question may simply reflect the fact that, historically fewer women chose the scientific path. Therefore at the higher levels of these fields, where the practising academics tend to be older (40 or above), the more recent influx of women is yet to filter its way up. However another explanation, indeed one that I grapple with on a regular basis, is that there is something about the academic lifestyle which does not appeal to the female mentality.

As I mentioned earlier, the life of a scientist is a constant battle. We spend most our time forming and testing theories, many of which only lead to more questions. Then, once things begin to slot into place, we are expected to defend our methods and findings against the rest of the community, which can often lead the poor researcher back to the drawing board. Although this process is certainly not pleasant it is necessary to ensure our theories are scientifically accurate, especially since mistakes can have devastating consequences. This means that good researchers are not only thick-skinned but also highly motivated, determined and willing to dedicate the majority of their time to their work.

Along with these pressures, the financial rewards of a scientific career are often small. To gain a typical Ph.D. from a UK university the student must first have spent at least three years as an undergraduate, more often four including a Master’s degree (we all know this is an expensive endeavour, more so recently). A typical Ph.D. course lasts an additional 3 years, during which it is rare to earn more than ~£16,000 p.a. Most courses offer an optional unpaid 4th year, which many students (even the most organised and diligent) often use to finish their thesis. Assuming you can defend your work and gain a Ph.D. this qualification usually leads to one of two academic career paths: either a side-step into industry (an area I’m not so qualified to speak about) or a move into a ‘postdoc’ position, usually with the ultimate goal of gaining permanent academic employment. Unfortunately, despite the sheer amount of effort required to reach this stage, postdoc jobs are usually temporary (often lasting only 3-4 years) and do not tend to be highly paid. It is also not rare for a researcher to move through three or more postdocs before finding a permanent position. This means that many researchers are expected to spend the whole of their twenties and often a good proportion of their thirties in relatively low paid, high stress, temporary positions.

Don’t get me wrong; although this may sound bleak, for the right person, science is an ideal career. For the most part you get to be your own boss, you are constantly challenged by new problems, you get to travel around the world presenting your data at conferences and you know that your work is of huge significance to the community, even if it’s just a small part of a larger picture. However, for many people the lack of stability and a sustainable work/life balance will undoubtedly become a stumbling point.

In my experience women are more likely to struggle in positions which do not offer a sustainable work/life balance, especially if they intend to start a family. This may be why you find a large number of female academics moving sideways into more flexible careers such as teaching or medical writing (a predominantly female profession). In my opinion, the high attrition rate of women in the biological sciences does not reflect a difference in intellectual capacity or capability but simply a difference in priorities; men are perhaps more willing to sacrifice relationships and financial stability for their work. If this is the case, I believe there is a problem with a system which allows a number of intelligent motivated scientists who want a more balanced lifestyle to simply fall by the wayside.

The second question (why at most ages there are fewer women studying the physical sciences and maths) stabs at the heart of the age old nature/nurture debate. As far as I know, we cannot say whether the female mind is less inclined to this type of thought or whether the environment in which young girls grow up discourages them from studying these subjects. Either way, I believe the key to tackling the imbalance lies in fostering an interest in these subjects early in life rather than trying to convince teenagers that science is ‘cool’. Indeed, I think a good start would be to provide young girls with some more realistic academic female role models!

– but hey, don’t ask me I’m just a girl…

Post by: Sarah Fox and Louise Walker


11 thoughts on “Science: Is it a girl thing?”

    • Thanks fredbortz! Awesome tip re Women’s Adventures in Science. I am just about to complete a BA in Marketing (a bit off the topic of this blog I realise) but am passionate about learning and live with this anxious sort of urge to learn about what I don’t yet know. Anyway, long story short, I’m thinking about heading into some science study! An indulgence I guess. I’ll work as a marketer by day and perhaps science novice by night!

      • Thanks, Sarah and Bianca. The series continues to have steady sales even though it is now seven years old and the featured scientists have continued to develop in their careers.

        As to the other thread of comments here, I have often remarked that although the series is targeted to girls and addresses issues that women still face more than men,* everyone has to overcome some issues in their lives. Science is for people who love following their questions, no matter their race, gender, etc.

        Heidi Hammel in particular (since I know her story very well) is an excellent model for finding a way to integrate a love of science with your life, something men need to do just as much as women. Sometimes I wish the “Women’s Adventures in Science” logo would be removed so more boys would read the book, although I know some boys have read it and benefited from it. But as a practical matter, the logo and series title have helped the book reach its main target audience.

        Fred Bortz

        * Heidi Hammel had a chemistry teacher refuse to write a recommendation for her to MIT because he said girls weren’t smart enough for the best science colleges. Then when she got in, he said, “It’s only because you’re a woman. They have quotas to fill.” She also had issues in grad school, which my book discusses.

      • i come from a family of scientists and intellect minded people but i never thought about science but only music. i am crazy about music and am very much confused about humans and their behaviour suddenly, i dont know why science grabbed me because i think i am spiritual too may be i think a lot abt dead souls and galaxie and they both have connection with invisible
        forces above i guess i have met recently a dead soul near the ocean but not God yet. I am happy abt the fact that you want to be connected with science full of mysteries. What you have written that reminds me abt the quote of Henry Ford, he was the owner of the Ford Motor Company,

        “I do not believe a man can ever leave his business. He ought to think of it by day and dream of it by night”.

        scientifically yours,

  1. Your telling women that they have to choose between Kim Kardashian and Rosalind Franklin perpetuates the stereotype that sexy=stupid, intelligent=dowdy. Why can’t a woman aspire to be like Harvard graduate Natalie Portman or mathematician Danica McKellar – both sexy as well as intelligent?

    The fact that (male) Brian Cox probably attracts many viewers because of his looks doesn’t detract from his reputation as a scientist – why the double standard?

    The ad in question completely lost the plot, but I can understand if the creators were trying to tell women that you can “do science” and still be happy with your physical appearance and retain your social standing – which probably has a lot to do with why there are so few women in science (I know that I wouldn’t be happy if I knew I had to spend the rest of my life with my hair in a bun and my top buttoned at the neck) – they just went about it in the wrong way to the point where the ad became offensive.

    By the way, have you seen the EU Commison’s updated “girl thing” website? Now they are trying to encourage girls to get involved in science by telling them that they can make other people healthier and “save the earth.” They’ve traded the Slut stereotype for the Mother Earth stereotype. What about girls who want to travel to other planets or blow things up?

    • I was not intending to ask anyone to choose between Ms Kardashian and Rosalind Franklin. The point I was making, which I still believe to be valid, is that a large number of female role models glorify the concepts of being glamorous, rich and shallow rather than hard working and intelligent. I of course can’t comment on Kim Kardashians intellect, since it is not really a part of her public persona. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to find underneath her image she is a relatively shrewd business woman, the problem is that this is not what comes across to the public! When it comes to Rosalind Franklin, my aim was simply to choose a well know female scientist, I wasn’t aware she was ‘dowdy’, she just looks like a regular woman to me!

      I never intended my article to address the issue of personal attractiveness in science – this is an incredibly loaded issue and hard to generalise across individuals. Indeed, it’s also not in the least bit relevant to what makes a good or bad scientist. My mentioning of Brian Cox was simply to make a point about the romanticism of science in the media and how this does not really reflect the day to day lives of most scientists, I care little about his appearance.

      The idea of being ‘happy’ with your physical appearance is not something which can be easily generalised across women (Indeed my idea of being happy in my own skin is being able to not make an effort and still feel comfortable with who I am and what I look like). I worry here you are linking beauty with the notion of being happy with your physical appearance. Do you actually believe that you must be generically beautiful before you can be happy with your appearance?

      That said I believe any discussion of appearance detracts from the main point I intended my article to make: which is that the image portrayed in this advert does not represent what it is actually like to be a scientist. Unfortunately a large number of scientists work incredibly long hours, and often around hazardous chemicals/ bodily fluids. Both these facts (which inescapably come with a scientific career) make it much harder on a day to day basis to be sexy and glamorous. I of course don’t see a problem with anyone who is able to mix science with glamour, whilst also keeping safe and on top of their work, however in reality this is not always possible. Therefore selling an image of science as a glamorous profession, is simply a case of mismarketing. I believe the most important traits for any aspiring scientist are the ones I mention above (curiosity, determination, the desire to work hard and dedicate yourself to your research), science does not and should not have anything to do with personal appearance. Therefore my worry is that even if this marketing ploy works, the women it attracts to the field may be disillusioned when they find out what a scientific career is really like?

      My article simply uses the EU’s advert to raise the issue of women in science whilst also giving me an opportunity to honestly reflect my own personal experiences in the field. Therefore I have not commented further on their website.

      Although I think we may disagree on some issues, I’m grateful you have taken time to read and comment on my article and hope you continue visiting and enjoying our blog.


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