There’s no doubt that the media has done much to popularise science of late. The recent biopic about physicist Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, was perhaps a surprise-but-welcome hit, winning a best actor Oscar for Eddie Redmayne in the process. Meanwhile, the comedy show The Big Bang Theory continues to successfully celebrate geekiness in all its glory.
However, while science itself may be the ultimate in geek chic, there remains a stubbornly persistent gender imbalance in the sciences, among students, as young people move on into a career, and also right at the top of the research tree. While, in many ways, secondary education is becoming a world in which girls shine, as they increasingly out-achieve boys in many societies, fewer girls choose to study STEM subjects and, even though this situation may now be changing, many women still do not opt to pursue high-paid careers in science and technology, despite the best efforts of the policy-makers. So what exactly is going on?
According to an OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) study, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour and Confidence, an increasingly complex picture of gender, school results and career paths is emerging. It discusses the long-term international trend towards girls getting better results in school, and young women being more likely to go to university than young men. Indeed, this rise in female educational attainment over the past 50 years, overtaking boys, has been a major factor in driving economic growth in developed countries.
Science Careers for Women
However, the OECD argues that girls still lack confidence in following a science career. The organisation has examined why girls’ academic success does not translate into an economic advantage at work and found that career choices explain why women in developed countries are on average earning 15% less than men. The study drew data from international Pisa tests in more than 60 countries in 2012.
OECD Education Director, Andreas Schleicher argues that it is not “about men and women doing similar work for different pay but about men and women pursuing different careers” and has called for schools to raise girls’ confidence when it comes to STEM subjects. The research found that, across the OECD countries, among pupils of similar ability, boys are four times more likely than girls to consider careers such as computing or engineering.
That said, there are differences in educational achievement across countries. In Pisa tests taken in the UK, girls did particularly badly in science compared with boys, with a much bigger gap than most countries. Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education at the UCL Institute of Education, confirms however: “This is nothing to do with genetics. The explanation must be a cultural one.” In the United States, Jonathan Osbourne, Professor of Science Education at Stanford University, echoed the view that there were no inherent differences in academic abilities between boys and girls and the “shocking disparities” in results must be “entirely cultural”.
The OECD’s Schleicher suggests that even where girls achieve better academic results, there is often still a reluctance to apply for STEM jobs. The survey findings also suggest that parents were more likely to push boys towards careers in science and technology. “We may have lost sight of important social and emotional dimensions of learning that may be far more predictive for the future life choices of children,” he said.
There is, of course, a further dimension, in that science has often been seen as the preserve of male academics and researchers. Certainly, some of the women pioneers we featured in our “Three Iconic Women Scientists” blog battled sexual discrimination. Ironically, there are hints of misogyny too in Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen – the book on which The Theory of Everything is based – in which she (herself a PhD) describes becoming a “Physics Widow” with little acknowledgement of her support for the great scientist.
Skewed Playing Field
So, perhaps surprisingly for a discipline founded on objectivity, science as a career has been steeped in prejudice.
One international survey, comparing the career experiences of 15,000 physicists from 130 developed and developing nations, found that women around the world experience a tilted playing field. Global Survey of Physicists: A Collaborative Effort Illuminates the Situation of Women in Physics, published by the American Institute of Physics in 2013 found that, across the board, men have greater access than women to opportunities and resources, and their careers suffer less when they have children.
Rachel Ivie, assistant director of the AIP's Statistical Research Center and one of the report’s co-authors, is quoted as saying: “We knew things were unequal, but not this unequal.”
One of the most persistent problems is that a disproportionate fraction of qualified women drop out of science careers in the very early stages. A 2006 survey of chemistry doctoral students by the Royal Society of Chemistry in London found that more than 70% of first-year female students said that they planned a career in research; by their third year, only 37% had that goal, compared with 59% of males.
According to the US National Science Foundation, women earn about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the United States but comprise only 21% of full science professors and 5% of full engineering professors. And on average, they earn just 82% of what male scientists make in the United States — even less in Europe.
Need for Social Change
Thought-leaders say that they continue to struggle with ways to level the playing field and entice more women to enter and stay in science and this limits the potential for discovery and growth. “We are not drawing from our entire intellectual capital,” says Hannah Valantine, dean of leadership and diversity at the Stanford School of Medicine in California. “We've got to put on the accelerator to evoke social change.”
However, just as business is starting to make an effort at increasing its diversity at the top, so science is capable of change and some institutions are working hard to promote women scientists.
What are your thoughts on gender inequality in STEM education and careers?