Why so Few (Still)?

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.



This entry was posted in Equality, Women in Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Why so Few (Still)?

  1. Ivana Fulli MD says:

    Where is the girly confidence in entering medical school coming from ?

    Those girls who were supposed to be nurses or medical secretaries are now much more numerous than boys at becoming physicians in rich countries where girls are educated. Even surgery is becoming pink.

    The answer isn’t likely to be that medical schools are easy to enter, a piece of cake to survive without a very strong motivation and lead to professions very easy to pursue when raising a family.

    • Ivana Fulli MD says:

      The answer isn’t likely to be that male doctors in general and surgeons in particular had a longer tradition of being feminist and medical school of being bastions of women human’s rights like the right of non being sexually assaulted at the work place.

      No need to go back in history to the times when women had to disguise themselves as men in order to practice medicine. To listen to what a courageous and practical minded senior Australian surgeon advise younger ones is enough material to reflect upon for physicist thinking sexism is the main obstacle to having more women physicists :

      « (…)Caroline, recounted McMullin, was being mentored by a male senior surgeon, who repeatedly asked her to go to his rooms at night. When she finally did this he sexually assaulted her, and she rebuffed his advances. In response, he started giving Caroline bad reports.

      Caroline complained and finally won her case, but, McMullin said, had since been unable to get a job at a public hospital in Australia. McMullin continued: “Her career was ruined by this one guy asking for sex on this night. And realistically, she would have been much better to have given him a blowjob on that nigh

      “What I tell my trainees is that, if you are approached for sex, probably the safest thing to do in terms of your career is to comply with the request. The worst thing you could possibly do is to complain to the supervising body, because then, as in Caroline’s position, you can be sure that you will never be appointed to a major public hospital.”(…)”


      Alternatively, any physicist thinking medicine and surgery became decisively pink in France because of the lack of sexism in medical school and hospitals can also have a look at the perfect restful kind of frescoes women residents have to deal with in French hospitals in the quarters where they have to have breakfast, lunch, diner and sleep when on call or when wanting to save money on rent:

      NB: I suffered sexual harassment both at general medical school and during my residency like so many girls -although I was never raped nor sexually assaulted really-but I have to tell the truth it wasn’t neither during my six month time as a resident in neurosurgery nor during my medical student rotation in general surgery. I was lucky, the surgeons I met where real gentlemen.

    • Ivana Fulli MD says:

      In favor of my arguments against stereotypes being a major factor in girls choices of career, I found a 2012 article In The Review of General Psychology of the American Psychological Association :
      “Can Stereotype Threat Explain the Gender Gap in Mathematics Performance and Achievement?”
      by Gijsbert Stoet David C. Geary University of Leeds, United Kingdom University of Missouri

      « We conclude that although stereotype threat may affect some women, the existing state of knowledge does not support the current level of enthusiasm for this as a mechanism underlying the gender gap in mathematics. We argue there are many reasons to close this gap, and that too much weight on the stereotype explanation may hamper research and implementation of effective interventions. » 


  2. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    A webpage repository of research articles, blogs and useful references for those interested in learning about the challenges facing women and minorities in science:


    • Ivana Fulli MD says:

      But how do you explain that medicine is pink and even surgery is becoming pink when the sexist culture of the field was obvious ?

      By the way, surgeons of any sex and sexual orientation are quite good at recognizing the real serious problems and not being hypocrites about it. For example, the women surgeons hashtag #IlookLikeAsurgeon has none of the dangerous hypocrisy and denial of sexual nepotism and sexual coercion of #DistractinglySexy- which was basically a big lie presenting women in labs as asexual Victorian ladies when anybody having spend time in a lab know that romances and sexual affairs happen in labs.

      The honor of Sir Tim Hunt, in my psychiatrist interested in professional sexual misconducts ‘s opinion is of having dared to allude, albeit in a self deprecatory joke to sexual nepotism and having had the honesty to tell the BBC that he had just tried to be honest about love affairs with the boss perturbing the needed even playing field between researchers in a lab.

      • Marnie Dunsmore says:


        I’m not British, but Canadian/American, so please pardon me if I fail to understand you reference “medicine is Pink”. That being said, we do get a lot of British scientists and engineers here in the Bay Area (San Francisco).

        For whatever reason, gender and racial equality advancement have played out differently in different fields of science and engineering. The numbers are still not good in most STEM fields. I would suggest that policy and financial decisions, as well as social norms, have played a part in why women have encountered less discrimination and gender bias in certain areas of science (and engineering).

        I’m sorry, Ivana, but I haven’t been involved with the #distractinglysexy twittering. I don’t think they are suggesting that people don’t have relationships in the scientific workplace. I don’t have a twitter account, and I don’t think that twitter is a very good platform on which to address these often highly nuanced issues.

        The fact remains that women scientists and engineers are graduating from university often with top marks, but are not being hired or promoted at the same rate as men in many STEM fields. Both women and men are responsible for the impact that unconscious bias has on the advancement of women in many fields of science and engineering.

        Why not have a look at some of the well researched literature on the topic, rather than trying to suggest that because it is better in some fields ( medicine /) it is better all around?

        • Ivana Fulli MD says:

          I am sorry but I won’t neither surrender my Italian sense of sarcasm who made me choose to write medicine is pink and even surgery is becoming pink nor waste the little amount of time time I have to still spend researching “my Tim Hunt scandal paper” to explain it to a Californian based.

          (Where else can a woman pretend to ignore that the times are gone when the artistic genius of the Italian renaissance where ruining patrons in lapis lazuli in order to get the proper womanly color to paint the Vergine Mary ?)

          I comment very few blogs and even in the best minds’ blog I abstain from irrelevant discusssions. Don’t count on me to argue with a British person about the virtues of the European Council ‘s Human rights declaration and courst when we are discussing Tim Hunt scandal for example.

          Once again I am awfully sorry that you live in a place, California, where google doesn’t allow you to inform yourself about what #IlookLikeAsurgeon & #DistractinglySexy.

          If I had time to waste for it and if I liked to be taken for a fool by people of less intelligence than they think they possess, I would comment Pr Philip Moriarty from the university of Nottingham ‘s blog

        • Ivana Fulli MD says:

          “Why not have a look at some of the well researched literature on the topic, rather than trying to suggest that because it is better in some fields ( medicine /) it is better all around?”

          I didn’t suggest anything like this sentence pretends.

          I asked two very important and relevant questions-very important for the scientifically minded, that is. The propaganda doesn’t care about:

          1. “Where is the girly confidence in entering medical school coming from ? ( In Ivana Fulli MD 19-09-15 at 9h25 pm)

          Bis repetita placent and ,just in case you just had jumped to comment without reading neither the blogpost nor the comment you pretended to answer, I did repeat the question :

          1bis. “But how do you explain that medicine is pink and even surgery is becoming pink when the sexist culture of the field was obvious ?”

          My second very relevant question about the subject of this blog-for those really interesting in researching truth and the best for women and for science -as Sir Tim Hunt did before the “Tim Hunt scandal ” and #DistractinglySexy -was diluted in two comments. I will summarize it for you, since you were so polite and nice and so unable to grasp the issues at stake:

          2. How can it be that medicine is pink and even surgery is becoming pink -in rich countries where women can study- when medical school and many surgery training departments could teach a thing or two to army drilling sergeant ? ( In Ivana Fulli MD 19-09-15 at 9h25 pm

          (NB: There are good reasons in making life hard for trainees in medical school and surgery training like in the military training but only up to a point and both sexual crimes and tricks endangering patients or trainee’s safety should be definitively out. Who would want to serve at war with or be operated by a person too emotional, unable to either take alone quick and smart efficient decisions under high uncertainties, tiredness and the stress of other emergencies waiting for them to deal with ? Who wouldn’t want only surgeons able to act as quickly as needed in the best efficient cold blooded manner when having to react in a hurry to most unexpected dangers ?)

          I am well aware of physics not being pink for sure in 2015 since one of my sons has a master of physics from the most precious physic graduate school I know of in the world since the ENS Ulm takes only 20 physicians & 40 mathematicians per year and has got an incredibly impressive number of Field’s medal laureates and some Nobel laureates in physics considering the small sample of graduate students they take (they also have chemists, economists & humanities graduates):

          Idem for engineering since I have another son graduate in math of Paris VI & alumni of Ecole Polytechnique who takes only 400 French graduates & 100 foreigners a year and is probably the French most prestigious engineering school (as well as a military school).

  3. I would request commenters to stick, as Marnie says, to the professional and indeed to the topic of my posts. I do not want this blog to be used for personal attacks, as I have said previously.

  4. Sarah says:

    I suspect that one reason that many more girls are entering medicine now, is that teachers are familiar with it as a career. Certainly when I was at school in the 1990s, if you were any good at science then medicine was seen as the default career pathway, mainly as the school was woefully ill-equipped to advise on any other scientific/engineering career pathway. It also has the advantage that non-scientific parents “understand” medicine as a career pathway, and therefore they are more likely to actively support it as a career choice.

    Likewise if you were good at humanities, then Law was the default option. I think that Law is also seeing a steady increase in women.

    • Ivana Fulli MD says:

      Look at the beautiful energetic smile of becky Fisher @beckybeckyfish telling Twitter:

      “Finding female role models in surgery can be tough, but I won’t let it put me off! #ilooklikeasurgeon #medstudent
      11:36 AM – 8 Aug 2015 · Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom

      (In the link #IlookLikeaSurgeon i provided earlier.)

      it’s hard to think a high school teacher ‘s opinion that being any good at maths was a good enough reason to try medical school was enough to provide this medical student with the strong desire to become a surgeon even without role model in a very sexist environment where the public still expect women to be nurses in surgery especially.

      For the French judges, women are more and more numerous even at senior judges position and it can ‘t be ignored how prejudiced against women was and stil is the “courts of justice world ” in France.

      For examples: Only this morning a pseudo @bismatoj “tweeting from one of our administrative tribunals ” posted ” https://twitter.com/bismatoj/status/652512248984915968/photo/1

      “Ma greffière quand je lui fais croire qu’on a perdu le dossier 15 minutes avant l’audience pic.twitter.com/F7ziZc2VR0”

      (“My clerk of court when i make her believe we have lost the files 15 mn prior judicial hearing”)

      with an animation (Snow White) “pretty poor nerves girl” It’s the same sexist stereotype which makes young girls surgeons in training complain in #ILookLikeASurgeon about being asked by patients if they are nurses because the sexist stereotype is that young women are nurses in French Hospitals in 2015.

      A senior judge was mocked on Twitter by a male prosecutor Stéphane Lambert and judge Emmanuel Douchain the latter pretending an urge to strangle her out of exasperation- DURING a very serious criminal trial- out of his exasperation at her conduct of the trial:


      Those two magistrates have been condemned by their regulatory body rather lightly, in my opinion, since both are still magistrate and judge when they costed millions to the tax payers since this major trial was annulated and repeated and morally -and even more importantly- because also sent to their considerable number of followers exciting tweets boasting about making a testimony cry by prosecutor Stéphane Lambert and judge Emmanuel Douchain explained through Twitter he wasn’t following what was happening in court since hours-when this was the most serious kind of criminal trial we have in France “cour d’assises” with not only judges prevented to have any contact with prosecution since they have to discover the case like the other members of the jury being part of the sentencing jury with ordinary citizens!

      I heard nobody in France finding that two males, prosecutor and judge, mocking publicly the actions in court of a senior woman judge –who was their better hierarchically at this trial

      • Ivana Fulli MD says:

        I apologize for an unfinished sentence in my last paragraphe and the unlaw-ly use of , “a senior woman judge –who was their better hierarchically at this trial”.

        Please read:

        I heard nobody in France finding that two males- prosecutor and judge- mocking publicly the actions in court of a senior woman judge, president of a major criminal trial- with judge Emmanuel Douchain being her inferior in the hierarchy of judges and the prosecutor Stéphane Lambert, hierarchically independant of her but being under her command of the procedure of this trial- had been in any way sexist.

    • Ivana Fulli MD says:

      BTW, I appreciate the weight of your anecdotal evidence which would be even enhanced with any link to the former school of yours or your country.

      But, in France and Italy I never heard that parents and teachers were especially keen on girls with any gift for science to become MDs and girls gifted in literary matters to study Law.

      On the contrary, French high school teachers and headmasters dream only of having their brightest pupils to enter ENS ULM to become philosophers or mathematicians and as second best to enter a prestigious engineering school. Nothing can enhances more than that their high school status !

      In France philosophy and mathematics are considered the most prestigious subjects at the elite schools and mathematics only one at the mainstream schools.

      In France you aren’t considered really clever as a pupil up to baccalauréat if you aren’t good enough at maths to try for a scientifique baccalaureate : The non scientific baccalauréats are looked upon as a sign of failure to obtain a scientific baccalauréat in France – unless you are incredibly gifted in literary matters and have secured a place in one of the most elitist high schools with hope for you to enter ENS and become a philosopher there.

      If you are a french polytmath your teachers and head teacher will push you very strongly to preparatory classes to enter ENS math, physic or any prestigious engineering school, nog medicine.

      ( if you are good enough in math & physics most reasonable parents will choose for you to prepare a scientific baccalaureat in order to keep your options open but certainly not for keeping especially the medical school option open as a career to the best of my knowledge: It cost a lot to maintain for very long your child in medical school, the earnings aren’t that great considering the studying and financial efforts in France and Italy and the life style of MDs is always more in contrast with the lighter hours of works of many other professions)

  5. CW says:

    Can you provide a link that gives more concrete/complete information about the content and results of the survey? The links provided seem to be to a press release and a flashy web interface and video…

    • I requested a link to the full dataset and it is now published here.

      • Nedward Marbletoes says:

        Thanks for the link to the study report!

        Upon reading it, I do not believe that it actually means that “67% of Europeans think women do not possess the required skill set in order to achieve high-level scientific positions”

        1. It is not a scientific survey, and thus the numbers cannot be generalized to “Europeans.” They cannot be generalized even to readers of Vogue websites (or wherever the survey was posted; the methods do not provide this information.), because web surveys are self-selected, not randomized.

        2. The survey question is more complex than just asking “do women possess the required skill set…” Instead, it asks “In your opinion, What abilities do women lack that stops them from becoming high-level scientists?”

        Then it follows with 16 abilities that women may lack. Notice how loaded the question is (it could have more fairly asked, “Do women lack any of these abilities…”). This, it forces the responder to first assume that women lack abilities — and the enlightened ones will therefore assume that it means SOME women, not ALL women.

        I believe responders therefore clicked on things that are obstacles for many women, not things that disqualify all women. For example, the 2nd most popular response was “a professional network.” That is clearly not an ability, but lack of one is an obstacle.

        Only 7% said that women lack “scientific ability”!

        It is also problematic to characterize the survey as “research” if readers will assume that means it followed scientific research methodology, rather than market research methodology that has no scientific validity.

        • CW says:

          My thanks also for posting this.

          @Nedward – I don’t know why you characterise this as an unreliable survey posted on ‘Vogue websites’ or similar. It seems it was carried out by a professional survey company (opinonway) following professional standards, and at least claims to have participants “representative of the population” – one would assume through some appropriate sampling process. If you want to say market research is not scientific research, perhaps you could suggest how else information like this could be obtained?

          @athena – I do agree with Nedward that it is highly misleading to take the headline “67% of Europeans think that women do not possess the required skill set in order to achieve high-level scientific positions” from the survey responses to question 10. As noted, several of the ‘lacks’ are not to do with skill set. The questions up to there, and the question itself, are highly leading to influence respondents to pick one of the options. And if they pick even one option (e.g. ‘self confidence’) then they are counted towards the 67% characterised as saying women “lack abilities”. I think even you might have agreed with the assertion that lack of self confidence is a factor in women failing to reach high level positions in science!

          If it is not too late to revive the discussion, I would be interested to hear your opinion on this.

  6. CW says:

    The quote in my comment is from your blog post, which was my first source of information about this survey. You prefaced the statement by “it would seem that” but otherwise gave the me the impression that you had access to the ‘report’, for example starting that paragraph with “Based on the responses recorded in the study…”, rather than “The press release includes surprising figures such as…”

    I’m not trying to undermine the valid take home message, but I think it is incredibly unhelpful to the cause of women in science for L’Oreal to make wildly exaggerated claims based on poorly phrased survey questions, and do think you have some small responsibility for having uncritically propagated those claims.

  7. Dear Dame Donald

    You do some amazing job there. My 2 cents? You ought to read the foolowing book because it is going to be one of a few coming on questioning the use of physics/science for the better of humanity or not. A novel called ” The Balance” , written by Pandora, and the heroine is a genetically engineered woman called Neath Pilgrim (her first name is the same meaning than yours) it is, but I can tell you…revolutionary in fun thinking. I only point it out to you because I read it and I know that science is a good tool, a good servent but can be a good master in the wrong hands.

    Anyhow, you ought to contact its creator..maybe fate?

    On Twitter @neathapilgrim

    As for myself, I always thing it is good to share a story that can influence the world at large…

    Mr PHd Gillon, BASc
    THEinfogatherer (an fully altruist service to the people)

Comments are closed.