Does ‘macho’ science culture put girls off?
33.4% of successful undergraduate applicants for science subjects in the 2011 cycle were female, compared to 37% the previous year.
by Emily Chan
Friday 12th October 2012, 08:45 BST
A large gender imbalance persists within the Sciences. The latest admissions statistics to be published show that 33.4 per cent of successful undergraduate applicants for science subjects in the 2011 cycle were female, compared to 37 per cent the previous year. The gap is most evident among engineers and computer scientists: only 19 per cent of Engineering applicants were female, while just two women were accepted for Computer Science in the whole year. Around two in five applicants for Natural Sciences were female.
The problems begin at school. Research by the Institute of Physics (IOP) published last week revealed that nearly half of all state schools in England did not have any girls sitting A-level Physics last year. Overall, only 20 per cent of students taking the exam were girls.
Professor Athene Donald, director of the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative (WiSETI), says: “The number of girls doing Physics A-level remains low, so they never start on the ladder. I think we need to look at schools, as to how they teach boys and girls. Single-sex schools seem to manage to encourage more girls to take up science.”
The IOP report highlighted that girls who went to a single-sex school were almost two and a half times more likely to continue studying physics at A-level compared to girls at co-educational schools in the maintained sector.
Stephanie Mennecier, a second-year Engineering student at Peterhouse, went to an all-girls school: “I went to a school with a specialism in Engineering, so science and technology were strongly encouraged, and a large majority of people would study at least one of Biology, Chemistry or Physics. In fact, my sixth form had the largest all-girls Maths department in the country.”
Mennecier worked on the Victoria Station Upgrade project this summer and found that only around one in ten of the engineers there were female: “I think that women have slightly different skills to men and it would be beneficial having more of them in the industry. The best way to do this would probably be by getting kids more involved at school.”
In June, the European Commission launched a campaign called ‘Science: It’s A Girl Thing’ in order to encourage more girls to consider careers in science. However, an accompanying minute-long video that appeared on YouTube was branded “patronising”. The advert was heavily criticised for conforming to the very gender stereotypes that it sought to challenge. Some people in fact thought the video was a joke, which led to the EC spokesman for science, Michael Jennings to write on Twitter that the commission “doesn’t really do irony”.
An Ofsted report on girls’ career aspirations published last year argued that setting up mentoring schemes in schools and bringing role models into the classroom were effective ways of overcoming gender stereotypes. The report also suggested that media representations of women had a strong influence on pupils’ aspirations. Professor Brian Cox, presenter of Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe, has been praised for increasing the popularity of science, but there is not yet a high-profile female equivalent.
There is a large body of research on whether innate differences between the male and female brain leads to gender disparity in the sciences. In his 2004 book The Essential Difference, Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Devlepmental Psychopathology, argues that the average male brain is more likely to be good at “systemising”, while the average female brain is “hard-wired for empathy”.
“In trying to understand sex differences we shouldn’t neglect either social or biological factors, since this was the error of the past,” says Professor Baron-Cohen. However, he points out that in America the average SAT score for mathematics have been consistently higher for male students over the last fifteen years, and emphasises that looking at this type of statistical evidence “might also help us to understand why some neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism often entail giftedness in mathematics.” One suggestion made in the book is that people with autism have an “extreme male brain”.
Professor Melissa Hines, who specialises in gender development, agrees that the nature-nurture debate is unhelpful, but argues: “Claims that irreversible brain differences caused by inborn factors cause women to be bad at, or avoid, science are overblown. A complex array of factors causes gender differences in occupational choices, beginning with factors that occur early in development and are then built on across the lifespan.” Hines suggests that “biases that work against women hinder their progress” and adds that in her opinion, “society should decide if they want to change these discrepancies in occupational choices and success.”
A Yale University study published last month found an implicit gender bias in the hiring of scientists. Faculty members were asked to review a job applicant, who was randomly given a male or female name. The male candidate was rated more highly for hireability and competence in comparison to the identical female candidate, by both men and women in the science faculty. They also agreed on a higher starting salary for the male applicant.
“I am sure unconscious bias is very common but overt sexism is probably rare,” says Professor Donald. “The trouble with unconscious bias is that it is hard to overcome because it is invisible.” However, she believes that the ‘macho’ culture within science is a problem: “Many women will cite examples where men talk over them, ignore them, or claim a woman’s idea as their own at committees.”
There are significantly fewer female than male science professors at the University. The Equality and Diversity Information Report published in January showed that there are around 130 male professors in the School of Physical Sciences, compared to fewer than 20 female professors.
In Biological Sciences, around two in nine professors are women. These numbers reflect the fact there are far fewer female professors within the University as a whole: figures from last year show that only 12.3 per cent of professors are female. Cambridge’s Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative (WiSETI) aims to promote and support women from undergraduate up to professorial level. The initiative organises seminars for researchers and offers a mentoring scheme to help women progress in their careers.
In 2006, the University was one of the first in the UK to receive the Athena SWAN bronze award in recognition of the work being done to increase the representation of women in science, engineering and technology.
“One of the reasons it is so important for a University such as ours to have people like myself as gender equality champion speaking out, is that it constantly reminds people of the issues and challenges,” says Donald. “Cambridge is undoubtedly moving in the right direction.”