Destructing science’s glass ceiling: The article that shouldn’t have to exist

A simple Google search for ‘women and science’ brings up a plethora of web sites aiming to encourage women in the subject. But weirdly, when I see this, I get an uneasy feeling. I am a woman in science, I should be glad these organisations exist. I start asking myself questions – have I turned against feminism? Do I think it’s not really that big of a deal?

Thankfully I was relieved when I realised the answer to these questions was no. What makes me uncomfortable is that these organisations have to exist at all. They highlight the fact that there are still problems with both the number and treatment of women in science.

History shows us that the situation has got better, although there is still a long way to go. From the 16th and 17th centuries when the dominant opinion was that women in science were at odds with their domestic duties – “anyone engaged in serious intellectual endeavours should have a beard” accoding to Immanuel Kant – to the rise of scientists such as Carolina Herschel, Mary Fairfax Somerville and Ada Lovelace in the 18th and 19th centuries.

From then on women’s participation in science was increasingly accepted, with a rise in educational opportunities. Marie Curie became the first woman to win the Nobel prize in 1903, making it the double in 1911, and to this day is the only person to win both the Chemistry and Physics Nobel prizes. But women involved in science faced some extraordinary battles for their work to be recognised and faced significant discrimination along the way. They often worked “voluntarily” as faculty members, were written out of textbooks and saw their life’s work attributed to male colleagues.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Esther Lederberg, Chien-Shiung Wu and Lise Meitner are examples of these women who all have something in common. They were all shut out of receiving the Nobel prizes between the 1940’s to the 1960’s. They all had to stand by and watch their male colleagues take all the credit for work that they had substantially contributed to.

Many argue that Rosalind Franklin should also be in this list, but she died before her colleagues received the Nobel Prize for uncovering the structure of DNA. The award is never awarded posthumously, so we will never know if she would have received the prize along with Watson and Crick, although upon receiving the award they failed to credit her. Watson even questioned Franklin’s place in the industry, and Crick admitted that they used to have a patronising attitude towards her. She was also criticised for her presentation. She did not wear lipstick or revealing clothing as women believed that to gain recognition they had to hide their feminine qualities.

Clearly things are not quite that bad now, but sexism is still present. The Everyday Sexism Project allows women to catalogue sexism they experience on its website. These comments include “maths is not for girls”, “it’s good to have a skirt at a meeting”, “you are too pretty to do science”, “maths lecturer described a graph and why all the women would recognise it as shaped like a washing line”, and “being told at a university interview that I’ll probably get an offer as not many girls apply for my course, and they like having ‘girls’ on the course to keep the boys in check”.

I can add to this my own experiences of working my way up, from what some might call a “soft science” through jobs and a masters, to my current PhD in engineering. I have seen sexism in many different forms throughout this time. The only time it nearly brought me to breaking point was in a job in which a more senior engineer sexually harassed me. The company knew about it, but wanted to sweep it under the carpet as he was needed in the company and I was just a temp. Others told me: “he always has a different girl he does this with, this time it’s you”.

Maybe the most notorious controversy concerning women in STEM came in 2005 from Lawrence Summers, the then President of Harvard. At a conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce, Summers proposed a hypothesis that there were more men in science owing to the difference in “intrinsic aptitude” between men and women. This is believed to have led to his resignation the following year as Harvard President and cost him his job of Treasury Secretary for the Obama Administration.

But was Summers entirely wrong? After all, there are studies that do show that women’s brains are different to men’s. Firstly men do have bigger brains, but in terms of intelligence it really isn’t about the size, sorry guys. Men have 6.5 times more grey matter than women but women have ten times more white matter than men. This is likely to account for the differences in how women and men think, accessing different parts of their brains for the same task, but it does not tell us anything about intelligence with IQ scores being unaffected. All it tells us is that men and women may think about problems differently. Scientific research teams would benefit from a mix of both men and women to find the best solutions to problems.

There is also evidence that women’s interest and ability in science is more a nature vs. nurture issue. Many scientists believe that a difference in cognitive testing and choice of career results from a culture where science is a boys subject being embedded into girls at an early age; one of the issues is the difference between boys and girls toys. Whilst some shops, such as Boots, have recently stopped gendering toys, others have only given lip service to the issue.

In August 2014 Lego brought out a limited edition set called the Research Institute made up of three female scientists. This was in response to a seven year old’s letter to the company that went viral, in which she complained of the lack of female professional Legos. But this hasn’t seemed to change the overall ethos of the company. On their website, Lego has a category called ‘Girls’. In this section you can find Heartlake Lighthouse, Elsa’s Sparkling Ice Castle and Naida’s Spa Secret, whilst products such as their artic range seem to feature exclusively men.

Maybe it’s time to start realising that encouraging women into STEM courses and careers is much more effective when dealt with at a young age by targeting both boys and girls. By making it culturally acceptable that women have just as much a place in STEM as men, many of these problems of discrimination and lack of women taking these career paths can be solved.

A saying that came about in the 18th century regarding women’s roles as “equal but different”. This has traditionally been seen as an insult but there is a lot of truth in it. We are of course equal, but it is our differences that can lead to better scientific research and understanding. This does not just include the differences between women and men, but also between race, age, location, hobbies and all other qualities that let us see the world in different ways.

As for me, I am a woman in science, and I hope that I can encourage others to follow. But this is not my definition. I am a scientist, I am an asset to my subject area and I love what I do. My hope is that in the future articles like this do not need to be written, as all scientists, whoever they are, will be treated equally.


Holly Edwards

Feature Image: DonSmith/Alamy

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