Last week I was forwarded a link to a, now withdrawn, advert from the European Commission.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.
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