The lab and the gender gap

3 February 2011

 Eureka: the sexism issue
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Eureka: the sexism issue

A few weeks ago we held a ‘Eureka Live’ event on the topic of women in science. It was clearly thought-provoking because several people there, including one of the panel, wrote some interesting and reflective blog posts about it (there was also a lively backchannel on Twitter during the event). We thought it might be worth sharing with you some of what they said.

Della, on her blog ‘and so I said…‘, approached the event through her experience of being unsuccessfully managed by senior women in science. Her detailed account of the event covers the discussion which began with the observation that there are a ‘great number of science undergraduates who are female but the general trend shows a significant dropout at every level of progression’.

Possible reasons for this were explored: parenthood coming at a crucial career point and the social acceptability of a career in science, as well as trickier ground like genetically influenced competitiveness, and innate sexual differences. She concludes that the debate has broadened her horizons on the question, but a nagging question remains:

From this event I have had such an in-depth insight into other people’s ideas of why there is such a deficiency in women becoming successful in science, which make my initial thoughts look quite superficial now.  My main concern, however, relates to why we (including myself) are so assiduous at boosting the field with an influx of women because this has to be more than for the feeling of complacency – surely the focus should just be on the quality of the science.

Elizabeth Gibney on Research Blogs, in ‘Women of science, do you know your place?‘ suggests that diagnosing the problem (especially with a paucity of actual evidence) should come second to trying to fix such obvious inequity:

The point here should be that if we are missing out on such a gigantic resource that is half the population, for both science and equality’s sake we should try and answer some of these questions. We can roll out endless anecdotes and statistics, but a better idea would be to look at what’s behind the present situation and if anything can be done.

Finally, one of the speakers, Athene Donald, was prompted by a question in the discussion to consider the whole issue of confidence in science, and academia generally, in a post ‘Blushes and Bluster‘.  She writes:

I can think of examples of blushing, shy PhD students who feel sick before giving a seminar who then come across as strong and confident when it comes to the actual talk and give an incredibly polished performance. I can think of students who appear to be totally sure of themselves in one-to-one situations, who then fall to pieces and stumble when giving a public presentation and stammer themselves to a standstill in the subsequent question session.

The question of whether over-confidence is an asset or a gendered attribute remains unanswered. That so many people approached the issue of women in science through their personal experience suggests that the question of gender balance in science is important in practice, even if there’s little concrete evidence to back up many of our suppositions about the cause of the imbalance.

If  there’s a success story you’d like to share, nominations for the UKRC’s annual Women of Outstanding Achievement 2011 awards are now open.

We’re always interested in blogs about our exhibitions and events. If you’ve written something and you’d like to let us know about it, please drop me a line: