The Trouble with Women

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a debate organised by the local chapter of the Triple Helix Society given the provocative title of ‘The Trouble with Women’, designed to debate why women are still found in such low numbers in the upper echelons of science. No doubt this title was meant to pull the punters in, and indeed we had about 100 people, predominantly students, in the audience. My fellow panellists were Ottoline Leyser, a renowned plant scientist and author of the wonderful booklet Mothers in Science, Simon Barron-Cohen, who researches the extreme male brain and autism, both academics from Cambridge, and Rosalind Arden, a geneticist working at the Institute of Psychiatry in London.  Simon and I had been paired in a previous Triple Helix debate a few years back called ‘Why women can’t do science’. Clearly this is an issue that exercises students today, but on neither occasion have they managed to get any of the panellists to agree either that women can’t do science, or that there is a problem with them. Nevertheless, despite our consistent stand on this fundamental issue, despite the fact that Ottoline and I are living proof that being a successful scientist and a mother are not incompatible, despite all the positive steps that are being taken to facilitate women’s progression, I came away from the evening depressed how slow progress is and how hard it is to see that changing any time soon.

This was a view reinforced subsequently by my attendance earlier this week at the In Government discussion meeting Widening Participation for Women in STEM, which prompted my last post.  At this meeting again there were lots of upbeat facts and figures presented (although in fact I was only able to stay for the morning, for reasons which will be described more in my next post), lots of signs at a local level of change and improvement, many people doing splendid work across a wide range of sectors, all described in front of an audience of engaged and caring people.  Nevertheless, there are signs that all is very far from well at grassroots level and that it is going to take a generation or more finally to resolve.

Why do I say this? Because at the debate I mentioned at the beginning of this post, during the Q+A at the end there were at least two people present who detailed stories of young relatives and friends, girls of course, who were still being given incredibly negative messages along the lines of girls can’t/shouldn’t do maths, physics etc.  Over coffee at the second event I was regaled with similar stories. Stories of schoolchildren who had started off with a love of maths but who were being systematically discouraged and demotivated by teachers and by peers. Of course this is anecdote not evidence. But out of an audience of around 100 if more than one person has familiarity with this situation it hints at a problem of non-negligible magnitude.  It tallies with a story a Cambridge colleague of mine told me recently about a teacher saying to her 11 year old daughter that she ‘did maths like a girl’. I can’t begin to think what was meant to be conveyed by that message, but it was certainly not encouragement.

All the work many of us do to try to plug the leaky pipeline can only do so much at later stages if, as I’ve argued before, the girls never enter the pipeline. But what these anecdotal stories indicate is that the problem is not just the media, or low parental aspirations or ignorance of what scientists do, it is discouragement – or at least an absence of positive encouragement – coming from teaching professionals. Possibly they do it with the best of intentions (and I have no knowledge if the teachers were male or female), possibly from sheer ignorance of the reality of maths and science on their own part, but surely there must be a way to overcome such stereotyping before it spills over onto young girls who happen to exhibit an unexpected flair for maths or who express an interest in physics or engineering.

The Institute of Physics did a study of classroom attitudes towards girls in Physics, Girls in the Physics Classroom back in 2006 but almost certainly still relevant, in which statements such as the following were made.

•       There is no recent English-based research into teacher–student relationships in physics classrooms. Past research and research from other countries suggest that boys receive more teacher attention than girls do in science classes although teachers are not aware of this

•       Boys find male teachers more helpful and understanding than girls find teachers of either sex. There is evidence of differences in the amount and type of feedback that teachers may provide students. What evidence there is suggests that boys are more likely than girls to dominate class interactions and that girls are more likely than boys to receive feedback on the quality of their work rather than their behaviour, and the converse is the case for boys.

•       The evidence from research suggests that it is likely that most UK physics teachers are aware of the issue of gender and classroom interactions but are not aware of how classroom interactions are mediated by their own and students’ beliefs about gender-appropriate behaviours in relation to physics.

•       There is a discrepancy between teachers’ more cautious views about girls’ performance and confidence in physics and the students’ own views, both males and females. This may well be one influence in the web of influences that lead some girls who are well able to study physics to decide not to.

So, until we can remove some of these unconscious actions in the classroom, until teachers encourage children of equal ability of the two genders to the same extent, there is only so much we can do at a later stage to facilitate increasing numbers of women in the professoriat. The trouble with women? No, the trouble  lies, at least in part, with deep-rooted societal expectations of women however unwittingly internalised and imposed.



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7 Responses to The Trouble with Women

  1. Ursula Martin says:

    Who would have bet, a few years ago, on IBM and Hewlett Packard having female CEOs!

  2. Irene Hames says:

    The deep-rooted societal expectations of women and unconscious actions in the classroom you describe, Athene, are very worrying. If what was witnessed on Young Apprentice last week is the outcome then there should be great national concern. The girls were unable to do even the simplest of maths calculations during the task set (making ice cream), one even saying that 3×4=28. It was shocking and embarrassing. The comment from the observer was: “the dreadful surprise is that the team here can’t add up, subtract, divide or multiply”. We should all be concerned, not only because this low level of ability/knowledge restricts entry into scientific courses and careers, but because of the limitations it presents in the broader world, where knowledge of basic maths is needed every day.

    The programme is on iPlayer at ,

    with the bit I’ve described at 19.28-20.35, but not sure how long for – if 7 days, today will be the last day.

  3. James Lush (@jlush2) says:

    That programme is available until December 19, just checked.

    This is a really interesting blog post Athene. Having also attended the Widening Participation meeting I could have added my own anecdotes – the straight A east London girl I am involved with through a mentoring scheme who was told by her parents not to apply for a place doing Sports Science at Loughborough because it was “aiming too high” immediately springs to mind.

    Physics obviously faces a huge problem with stereotyping at school level, but even if this is addressed, significant problems remain in the post-graduate world and beyond – in the biological scientists we don’t see girls being put off at school or undergraduate level, but then the barriers and masculinity of the research world come into play. My instrincts are that what we need real incentives, not just a general sense of something ‘being wrong’. This applies across the board.

    • I think some of the actions of the Department for Health (see here if you haven’t come across this before) with regard to Athena Swan will act as a ‘real incentive’, at least in academia. Other funders are talking about doing something similar. But it seems to me we have more actions in place, and more attention being applied to the later stages and we’ve got to do more for physics and maths (and engineering by implication) at school.

  4. James Lush (@jlush2) says:

    Yes indeed, and it’s great that the DoH are to use Athena SWAN recognition as a criterion for funding. (Although will create a lot of work for the team) this is exactly the kind of thing I mean when I talk about incentives. By ‘across the board’, I meant at school too and encompassing all the sciences/maths. If teachers, in particular of shortage subjects in which ‘hard-to-reach’ students are being put off – the most obvious example of which is, as you say, physics – are to make a commitment to change, incentives would certainly help. However, although I’m no expert I’m sure this would be a big challenge.

  5. Robin Cousins says:

    The trouble with men.

    I write from the perspective of a man with two brothers, as father of two sons and the son of a father with only brothers. We have all have gone into engineering either by means of apprenticeship or by the technical college/access course/university route. In trying to understand the gender imbalance in STEM subject there is an implicit assumption that men are all the same. I think that there is an important “within group” divide in the male population that has an influence.

    There is good evidence from the 1960s through to current literature that indicates that there is a group of males who have a good general intelligence but are disproportionately bad at both literacy, and at seeing from the perspective of other people. As teenagers they find Newton’s Laws of Motion easy to understand but think Shakespeare to be complete gibberish. There have two practical ways forward:

    1. Study subjects in which literacy and empathy play no part. These are mainly maths, physics, chemistry and to some degree biology.

    2. Do something practical and express yourself with tools rather with than a pen and paper.

    The upshot is that STEM subjects will attract a particular group of men who distrust eloquence and value obsessive precision. This I suspect does not make a comfortable working environment for women in general, or indeed for many men.

    In a previous post you cited a man who asked “Has there been any research to show whether women wrote less logically than men?” I suspect that the factual answer is no, and if the research had been done the answer also would be no. The question he might have meant to ask is “Do some men in STEM fields find expressive and social language much harder to understand than they do scientific formula and technical jargon?” The answer to that I believe would be, I think yes, and yes.

    In most job applications outside academia the principle criteria are paper qualifications based on written exams, and interview performance. (Non academics do not have the benefit of an auditable trail of publications.) This process will underestimate the ability of the group described above. In any cohort of recruits there will be a small subgroup which is taciturn, unsympathetic, largely male and which has a general IQ one to two standard deviations above that of their peers. In a fair world, this is the group that will end up running the organisation, not because they are taciturn, unsympathetic or male but because the selection process presents a much higher hurdle for them than it does for their peers. This is particularly true for the STEM environment because empathy and eloquence are not core competences.

  6. A further question I was asked was about the benefit of single sex schools for maths and physics. An article has just appeared which claims there is no benefit. I need to go back and read the original Science article, which I haven’t yet done, but I suspect from the way the story is running in the press this is an overall conclusion not specific to any individual subjects. The answer should be to even the playing field in each classroom rather than artificially segregate the population, however much I (and many other women) feel I benefitted myself from attending a single sex school where no one told me I couldn’t do physics as a girl.