If you ask a kid to draw a scientist, very often they will draw a ‘mad’ scientist with sticking up hair in a white lab coat, probably holding a test tube containing some evil-looking smoking liquid: an amalgam of Einstein and Frankenstein. Oh yes, and they’ll be male. Perceptions about this really don’t seem to be changing very fast. The L’Oreal Foundation have just published the results of a survey they carried out across Europe, asking around 5000 people their views and perceptions of scientists, and in particular whether they thought women possessed the right skills to do science. The answers shocked me.
Based on the responses recorded in the study, it would seem that overall 67% of Europeans think that women do not possess the required skill set in order to achieve high-level scientific positions (the figure is 64% specifically for the UK). When comparing this figure with China, despite this shockingly high percentage of people who hold such negative views, the Europeans come out as less prejudiced against women scientists: in China an absolutely staggering 93% believe that women aren’t cut out to be scientists. Clearly we shouldn’t be astonished that, with this level of incredulity about women being capable of doing science, progress is as glacially slow as it is in seeing women rise to the top of the profession. And it would rather imply that we should also not be surprised that teachers (and indeed parents) aren’t always as encouraging as they might be when it comes to ensuring girls stick with science post-16, without even noticing that this is what they’re doing.
When asked for which fields do women possess the right aptitude, 89% of the survey’s respondents said ‘anything but science’, whilst favouring the social sciences, communication and languages as being suitable. These figures differed only slightly between men and women. Nevertheless one question where there was a noticeable distinction between the replies of men and women came in reply to the question asking what stops women progressing to the top in science. Whereas around half of both men and women said cultural factors were important, rather more women than men (45% versus 41%) also attributed this to men impeding the women’s progression; and 44% of women (compared with 37% of men) said there was a problem in the support management provided for women.
These figures are truly dismal. I feel almost astonished that so many women are actually entering into and succeeding in the scientific disciplines when you see the level of pretty explicit negativity about them doing so. Despite this apparent bias, those questioned actually thought there were more of us female scientists out there than there really are: on average they estimated that women hold 28% of the highest academic functions within scientific fields across the European Union. What’s the reality? Rather less than half that figure, with only around 11% women at the top.
Whether or not you think a scientist needs make-up, L’Oreal should be commended for everything they do to promote Women in Science in conjunction with UNESCO . (I am of course a beneficiary, having won their 2009 L’Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe) They offer financial support to many early career women through their national fellowship schemes and aim to create a multitude of role models – with accompanying imagery and life stories – for the next generations. This current campaign, headed up by Nobel Prize Winner Elizabeth Blackburn, is entitled ‘Change the Numbers’, with a view to seeing more women join her in that rare club of female Nobel Prize winners, currently crawling along at around 3% of all winners. And this goal can of course only be achieved if more girls and young women enter the profession in the first place. Hence L’Oreal have created a short video calling for #changethenumbers. Like my own call for #just1action4WIS, this is all about focussing attention on the current dire situation and finding ways to overcome it. By highlighting the prejudices and misconceptions the average man and woman in Europe feel when it comes to women rising through the ranks of scientists, we can see how important it is to keep talking about the problem.
Any particular woman may or may not actively be impeded by men and management (as the answers suggest), but whether this is her lot or not she will be surrounded by a crowd of people who just do not believe she is likely to succeed simply because she is a woman. If the people she talks to in the cinema queue, in the bar or the student union are prone to say ‘really?’ when she admits to loving science and aiming high, the drip-drip-drip of negativity is liable to sap self-confidence and aspiration.
The UK is little worse or better than the other European countries studied (and all seem better than China), men are not much more likely to hold negative beliefs than women, but collectively Jo(e) Public just doesn’t seem to have much faith that women can and should be scientists. Getting past the active hostility of a Jim Watson against Rosalind Franklin has to be seen as progress, but only when gender becomes irrelevant to how people view the person at the bench will equality in the lab even start to be a reality.