11th February 2016 is the first ‘International Day of Women and Girls in Science’. It is in response to the persistent underrepresentation of women in science disciplines and careers. For example, a 2013 Nature paper found that in most countries, women published significantly fewer than half of all research papers; according to UNESCO only 30% of the world’s researchers are women and the Nobel Prize has been awarded 524 times to men and only 49 times to women.
Why does it matter that women are under-represented in science?
It’s clear that science is vital for overcoming many of the world’s most pressing problems from climate change to the zika epidemic. If women are excluded from science, then half the world’s talent and brainpower are excluded from science. There is a democratic pressure too: most research is made possible by public funding and national & international legislation. If women are under-represented in science, it raises the likelihood that their interests and perspectives are not included in decisions about what kind of science is funded or permitted. And finally, there is an issue of social justice. Careers in science & technology can be better paid than other sectors. Science can be a fascinating and personally fulfilling endeavour. Women should have as much chance as men of benefitting from these opportunities.
What can we do?
Firstly, don’t give the problem to the women to solve. It’s a global problem that is caused in part by widely held assumptions and stereotypes. We are all responsible for challenging these assumptions and stereotypes. Evidence suggests that we often don’t realise how biased we may be, and there is a rising number of ‘unconscious bias’ training tools to deal with this issue.
In countries where female participation in school education is lower than male participation, achieving equal participation rates is crucial for enabling women to go on to further study and careers in science. Once girls are attending in equal numbers, schools should make more use of the tools they have for fostering girls’ interest in science subjects. High quality subject teaching is key, so teachers who are teaching science without having studied it themselves need particular support.
We know from UK research that schools in which few girls choose physics are the same schools in which few boys choose traditionally ‘female subjects’ like English literature, the whole atmosphere is more gendered. It’s important for school staff across all subjects to challenge stereotypes about different subjects and careers and to encourage their students to do the same. The Institute of Physics produced a guide for schools seeking to become less gendered.
We know that students who have the opportunity to do their own science projects are more likely to do well in their exams and to choose further study in science. Students should be supported to carry out research on topics and questions that interest them, and to lead change about science in their own schools and communities.
In research organisations
Detailed data about the participation of women at different stages of a research career can offer insights about where things need to change most. Many undergraduate courses boast a ratio of men to women that is at, or is getting close to, 50:50. But still the proportion of females in more senior positions is much lower. This new UNESCO data visualisation tool provides data on the proportion of women at every career stage for most countries.
Workplaces can attract and retain a wide range of people, including women, by ensuring their policies and benefits are family-friendly e.g. on-site creches, paid parental leave, flexible working hours/locations. They can also encourage women’s ambitions by recognising role models and supporting mentoring & networking programmes. Governments can support their research institutes and businesses by providing tax relief on childcare, and enacting and enforcing legislation on pay equity and discrimination.
To mark the first International Day of Women and Girls in Science, pledge one action you will take, whether it’s campaigning for policy change, mentoring an up-and-coming female scientist, making your organisation more family-friendly or visiting a nearby school.
To find out more:
- The Commonwealth Secretariat produced a guide to gender mainstreaming in science and technology
- Various UNESCO resources and publications look at the topic of women in science and seek to improve opportunities for women to participate in policy-making about science
- AuthorAid, INWES and the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World offer career opportunities for women in science in developing countries
- SciDevNet provides news & analysis about science for global development
- Sheryl Sandberg’s autobiographical book Lean In offers tips for ambitious women everywhere, especially the technology sector
- UNESCO and L’Oreal’s Discover Her website showcases case studies of inspiring women in science from across the world
- The Elsevier Foundation awards prizes to up-and-coming female scientists in developing countries
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society