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Bridging the X/Y divide

Science is only beginning to face up to the fact that it has a chronic gender bias. And while some moves have been made to correct this, many of them have been ill-conceived. In light of the European Commission’s “Science: It’s a girl thing” video fiasco, Web Editor Natalie Healey investigates the reasons behind the lack of women in the science workplace, and what can be done about it…

It is 42 years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, but women are still massively underrepresented in science, technology and engineering roles. It was reported recently that nearly half (49%) of all co-ed maintained schools do not have even one girl studying A level physics. Additionally, when only 7% of engineers and fewer than 20% of academic professors are female, why is it so difficult to encourage young women in enter into science careers and reach the top of their fields? Equally, what is the right solution to this problem? A recent campaign from the European Commission entitled “Science: It’s a girl thing” designed to attract more women to science had admirable intentions but grossly missed the mark, producing a teaser video that was deemed patronising and offensive. Trying to represent the whole of science in a way to appeal to an entire gender was always going to be ambitious, so how can organisations more effectively tackle this problem? Luckily, in the wake of this PR disaster, projects are emerging to combat this issue in novel ways.

The EC caused a much-publicised furore in June when it released a promotional video for its campaign aimed at attracting young women to research careers. Against a nauseatingly pink and glittery backdrop, the giggling “science” girls in the video danced in stilettos, full make up and tiny skirts, clearly lacking the PPE required in a real laboratory. Looking like they’d be more at home on the catwalk, they strutted towards a conventionally handsome male scientist at a microscope, who unlike the girls was actually engaging in a scientific activity. Viewers would be forgiven for thinking they’d been watching a cosmetics advert, as the video concluded in a lipstick-written tagline with sultry voiceover: “Science: It’s a girl thing”.

The teaser video merely replaced one stereotype (scientists) with another (women)

Presumably the objective was to destroy the cliché of a scientist being an old, badly dressed man with an unfortunate haircut, but far from challenging expectations about scientists, the teaser video merely replaced one stereotype (scientists) with another (women).  It went viral for all the wrong reasons, provoking a thoroughly negative reaction from scientists, feminists and journalists a-like that saw it as condescending and sexist, with many taking to Twitter to air their views.  Branded a “fiasco” by the Guardian, the teaser was such a disaster that the EC hastily removed the video from their website.  However, its legacy stills lives on via YouTube.


Ghastly as the video may have been, it existed as part of a campaign by the EC to encourage more women to take an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) because this under-representation is a real problem. However, some might wonder why it even matters if there are less women in science. What difference would it really make if the STEM workforce was more gender diverse?

I asked Manchester NHS medical physicist Heather Williams, director of project ScienceGrrl, why she thinks female representation in science needs to be resolved:

Heather, whose interest in medical physics was sparked because of a family friend in the profession, said: “I think female representation in science is a problem because it represents untapped potential. I don’t think there is anything inherent in being a woman that makes you less capable of doing science or less likely to want to.”

Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University frequently blogs about science in gender and thinks that underrepresentation of women in STEM is a problem because a diverse team could bring new ideas to a project that might otherwise go unrealised.

She writes in her blog: “A diverse team is likely to look at problems from broader perspectives than a team made up of near-identical individuals. We need diversity to drive innovation in ways that match the public’s desires and needs and so lead to the success stories of tomorrow.”

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Additionally, in our struggling economy, one of the sectors in the UK renowned for its ability to deliver excellence on a limited budget is STEM. 10% of global scientific input is produced here, despite the UK spending less on science that most other developed countries. According to Wise-UKRC – who work to ensure that the UK has a skilled, committed and talented workforce in STEM – men are six times as likely as women to work in STEM. One very obvious way to make STEM even better value for money is to increase more young women to take STEM subjects further and to stop women leaving STEM careers after they have children.

Female students choosing to take physics further education is at an all-time low this year, but what is putting women off studying science and staying there? The reasons are numerous and complicated and for a more comprehensive analysis, interested readers would be advised to look at the 2010 review document Why So Few? from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which cites evidence from a wide range of studies. However, many argue that the primary problem lies with the public’s image of a scientist. With that in mind, you can perhaps almost understand why the EC reached the result of ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’.

Stereotypes continue to dictate our lives, and represent a substantial barrier to women in STEM

Go into your local supermarket’s magazine rack and you are likely to find STEM publications such as National Geographic and New Scientist filed under Men’s Interest. Conversely, fashion and beauty and celebrity gossip magazines are reserved for the Women’s Interest section, perpetuating the myth that these are the only things women could care about, or worse, be valued for.  It is as if major corporations can’t comprehend a woman wanting to read about science, technology and economics. This arguably reinforces the message to women that science is not for them. Completely inappropriate and insulting for this modern age, not least for the men who enjoy reading Heat and OK magazine!  An organisation called EverydaySexism (@EverydaySexism) is working on tackling major supermarkets to gender neutralise their magazine sections.
Stereotypes continue to dictate our lives, and represent a substantial barrier to women in STEM. As a woman who trained in the biological sciences, I studied with a relatively equal number of men and women, but physics and engineering continue to be particularly difficult fields for female representation. In 2009, a University of Virginia psychology study found a strong correlation between unconscious stereotypes that link males to higher achievement in science, engineering and mathematics.

Heather told us: “I think engineering is often seen as a ‘boy thing’ because it sometimes involves getting dirty, and most girls are raised to be clean and tidy and pretty.”

A study in Child Development1 last year indicated that children express the stereotype that boys excel at mathematics and girls do not, as early as seven years old.  Stereotypes such as these can have real influence when it comes to confidence, ability, and decision-making. An experiment published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology2 reinforced this theory when a class of girls and boys were told there were being tested at maths to see if they stereotype held true. The boys generally outperformed the girls if the group was reminded of the stereotype. However, in groups’ told before the test that studies showed the maths gender stereotype was almost never significant, the girls and boys achieved similar scores. Research like this consequently suggest that overcoming stereotypes by pointing out that they have little truth may be a valuable step in building a diverse pipeline of STEM professionals.

Schools seem to bear the responsibility for encouraging their students in STEM and some people argue that it is learning about science here that may put young people (particularly girls) off the subjects. A new Institute of Physics report, entitled It’s Different for Girls3 lays bare the failure of many schools to ensure equal opportunities for boys and girls. Professor Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute on Physics writes in the foreword of the document: “Perceptions of physics are formed well beyond the physics classroom: the English teacher who looks askance at the girl who takes an interest in physics or the lack of female physicists on television, for example, can play a part in forming girls’ perceptions of the subject.We need to ensure that we are not unfairly prejudicing girls against a subject that they could hugely benefit from engaging with.”

Shane McCracken, director of I’m a Scientist – Get me out of here!, told Laboratory News: “At school, science lessons focus on the experiments, formulae and theories from an overwhelming majority of  male, white, dead scientists. Is it any wonder girls (and increasingly boys) can’t associate with these figures and see science as something that is not for them and unattainable?”

Shane makes an interesting point. The famous, historical scientists we learn about at school are almost always male.  The go to image of a scientist is probably still Albert Einstein. Apart from possibly Marie Curie, it’s likely most people would struggle to come up with names of female scientists if put on the spot, yet numerous male scientists would come to mind. This concept was explored in the December 2010 issue of Laboratory News in the article “Where are all the women?” in light of  research, carried out by the Royal Society, concluding that most young adults can’t name a female scientist.

Shane feels the solution to the problem is to change the way scientists are viewed by young people of both genders. I’m a Scientist- Get me Out of Here! is a free online event that gives students a chance to interact and question practicing scientists online to learn about science work in the real world, and find out why it is such an important, exciting profession.

“This project gives students a chance to see how science really works and shows students that scientists are normal rebellious types, not geniuses or heroes. It normalises scientists and make science more accessible for the students who take part. It’s also great public engagement training for scientists,” Shane told Laboratory News.

Obviously when it comes to influencing the way the public sees things, the media is majorly responsible. In recent years, our television screens have exploded with high-budget documentaries of spectacular science (many featuring easy-on-the-eye, Brian Cox).  Stargazing live received massive viewing figures and got the public so excited about space that Amazon reported a 500% increase in sales of telescopes.
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However, Brian Cox’s female counterpart is yet to be realised.  Maybe if a female physicist was as prevalent on our screens, girls would be signing up to A level physics by the masses? Regardless of the Brian Cox effect, other male science presenters still seem to dominate our screens. Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist by day, author by night and director of Science is Vital, speculated this is due to inherent sexism in the media.

“Having both the inclination and the time to do media work myself, I have certainly found myself dropped for programmes and replaced by less-qualified men,” Jenny said in a column for Nature.

If this is really the case, then it should be investigated.  Surely a good solution to tackling female representation in science would be to showcase them more in popular media. There are a number of talented female science communicators out there: notable examples include anatomist Professor Alice Roberts and solar scientist Dr Lucie Green.  I’m sure they are just as worthy of our airtime as good ol’ Brian.

A group that are also looking to modify the image of a scientist, and inspire and encourage girls to take an interest in STEM is ScienceGrrl – a campaign group of scientific professionals who are aiming to “showcase the female face of science.”

As Twitter exploded last June with objections to “Science: It’s a girl thing”, Heather suggested on the social media platform that someone should go about countering the imagery of the video with more realistic and inspiring images of women in STEM, aiming to highlight the range of opportunities available within various scientific fields. The response was extraordinary and within hours, she had enlisted the help of producer Louise Crane and numerous scientists including Embarrassing Bodies presenter, Dr James Logan.

“I have been blown away by support from the online community. We now have an extensive network of like-minded, passionate individuals. A team of more than 40 volunteers are directly contributing to this project,” said Heather.

A Sponsume (an online crowd funding platform) was set up to fund the printing costs of ScienceGrrl 2013 – a calendar showing female scientists from various backgrounds and disciplines undertaking fascinating science work. The shots will be accompanied by biographies giving an introduction to the women’s work, its value and what inspired them to undertake that career path in the first place. The calendar will also feature a few shots with men who either work in, or are inspired by science, reflecting that science belongs to neither gender.

“We hope to provide access to a wide range of female scientist role models, representing a range of backgrounds and disciplines, so that girls can see ‘someone like them’ can be a scientist and combine science with the other things they may want in their lives (family, a social life, a reasonable amount of fashion sense!)” Heather told me.

The proceeds from ScienceGrrl will be reserved for a number of groups that aim to break down the gender binary and encourage young people to engage with and develop their interest in STEM.  Heather was keen to stress that ScienceGrrl is a vehicle to tackle the problem of female representation in several ways.
Breakthrough the Stereotypes (http://breakthrough-stereotypes.org.uk/) is one organisation aiming to encourage children to fulfil their potentials as individuals and to not be restricted by gender labels.

ScienceGrrl hope that funding can go towards developing National Curriculum lesson plans for primary schools, enabling children to be aware of and look beyond potentially damaging stereotypes.

The STEM Ambassador Scheme will also benefit from proceeds of ScienceGrrl – the programme encourages people from STEM backgrounds to volunteer as inspiring role models for young people  so that they see science careers as an attainable option.

Heather and her team also hope to set up an online mentoring scheme to link up young women interested in embarking on a STEM career with professionals in the field. “There is much evidence, mostly from similar schemes in the US, that suggest this would be a valuable investment for encouraging women into science,” she said.

Untapped female potential in STEM must be overcome and a more gender diverse workforce would reap many benefits. Overcoming this issue not only requires looking into the often complicated reasons behind why women may not be encouraged to enter into and stay in science, but combatting them in various ways. Rather than repackaging science with lazy marketing techniques, breaking down the gender stereotypes that discourage women from pursuing science in the first place is an obvious step.  In contrast to the EC’s campaign, ensuring that science is NOT seen as a ‘girl thing’ or a ‘boy thing’ but a ‘people thing’ is arguably fundamental to the cause and providing a wide range of scientist role models for young people is one way of achieving this. With groups such as ScienceGrrl and I’m a Scientist Get me Out of Here! emerging with more creative and arguably effective approaches to tackling the problem, perhaps the EC’s video fiasco was not such a disaster after all, as the debate has opened up and the underrepresentation of women in STEM has now been placed firmly in the public eye.

  •  ‘I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here!’ is an online event where school students get to meet and interact with real scientists. Students submit questions which the scientists will try to answer by the next day. If you want to take part you should register at: imascientist.org.uk/scientist-apply


1: Dario Cvencek, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Anthony G. Greenwald. Math-Gender Stereotypes in Elementary School Children. Child Development, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01529.x
2: Spencer et al. 1999. Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35, 4–28
3: Institute of Physics. 2012. It’s different for girls.

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