Friday, October 12, 2012

Women in science

I am not a scientist.

I used to be, but I’m not any more. You see, it’s very hard to be a female scientist. It starts during education – I was educated in the sheltered environment of an all-girls’ school and believed the propaganda we were told – that females were just as good intellectually as males, if not better, and we were entitled to choose whatever career we wanted – even in traditionally-male areas. We were told about “sexism” but because we had never encountered it, we thought it was a thing of the past.

I then went to university, and had to rapidly rethink my worldview. Chemistry tutorials with the Ambisinistrous Professor (he wrote equally illegibly with both hands) were a constant source of frustration as the professor would address all his comments to the males in the group, and change the hand he wrote with so as to screen his writing from the women. At first I thought it was a coincidence, but then I experimented with moving my seat (sometimes even mid-tutorial) and found that he would move as well, to continue to block my view.1 Fine. He was obviously one of these “sexists” I had heard about, but he was obviously a relic from an older era, and his kind were on the verge of extinction.

Wrong. In a recent study,2 researchers sent CVs to employers, asking if the applicant would be considered for employment and mentoring. The CVs were identical apart from the genders. Far more of the female CVs were rejected than the male CVs, but the employers would not admit (probably even to themselves) that they had rejected the female for her gender; no, they would explain that the female was a less-good candidate, see all her flaws here! So not only are women being denied opportunities to advance, but they are also being told that they are more crap than their male equivalents! In order to get anywhere in science, a woman would have to be better than the men, and not believe people who tell her she is crap.

Another major, major hurdle for women trying to make a career out of science is the whole “uterus” thing. I’ve ranted about this before so I won’t go into it in depth, but the upshot is that very few employers are willing to hire someone on a three-year research contract if there’s a chance that they will spend a year of that on maternity leave. Personally, I think equal parental-leave rights would be a great solution, where either parent can take the time off to look after the baby. It might also help break the self-fulfilling cycle of “women are lower paid because they take maternity leave and aren’t as useful to a company” and “women are usually the ones who take maternity leave because they are lower paid than their partners”.

And now the BBC have an article on the fact that more women are needed in technology – together with a lovely mockery of the “Pink it, shrink it” approach taken by some (male) designers when trying to make a female-oriented product (is anyone else remembering the “Bic for her” fun?). The LittleMiss Geek certainly looks like a better campaign than the “Science: It’s a girl thing” one, where people attempted to explain that girls can do science too, because they can wear pink lab coats and investigate the chemistry of lipstick…

Anyway, I am not a scientist. I used to be, but I’m not any more. I was a good scientist (I think), but not an outstandingly brilliant one. I found it incredibly hard to get a job. I don’t know whether this was because I just wasn’t good enough, or because the entire system was inherently stacked against me. All I know is that it would have been nice if the playing field had been level enough for me to find out.
1 Some of you may ask why the women didn’t work together, and sit in a way that meant he couldn’t block both of us. We tried this, and found that he would, if he had to choose, obstruct the most “feminine” woman – so my fellow female tutoree in combat trousers and cropped hair would fare far better than me with long hair and a skirt.


  1. Funny, out of the 3 labs I've worked in, all of them have had a greater ratio of females in them, and that with the last 2 being in the traditionally sexist oil industry!

  2. It's possible that I just wasn't that good a scientist!

    However, I had some shocking child-bearing-plans questions asked of me in a number of interviews...

  3. Nice! I'm pleased to say that has never occurred to me.